Strategies To Establish and Maintain Workplace Safety

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that U.S. businesses spend about $1 billion every week just in direct workers’ compensation costs. These are the costs associated with workers’ comp payments, legal fees, and medical expenses.

Indirect costs, of course, push the overall bill far higher; additional costs include training new employees, investigating accidents, planning and implementing corrective actions, lost productivity, repairs, and all the costs associated with lower employee morale and productivity.

It’s a huge expense. It makes sound business sense for any organization to become experts at preventing unsafe working conditions, and as with virtually every priority, it’s important that top management sets the tone and creates the proper culture. The concept of “that’s how we do things here” permeates every organization, and “safely” should be one of the attributes that describes how your organization operates.

In practical terms, this requires a management commitment to excellence in two specific areas:

  • Workplace safety assessment
  • Workplace safety and health programs

We will look at each of these two items individually, paying special attention to some areas that are easily overlooked today.

Workplace assessment

The standard “check list” that is used to assess a workplace is a good starting point. It covers basic items that make up the foundation of a good proactive approach.

Health and safety activities. This category includes training, organizational policies, safety rules and practices, and record keeping. In all cases, it’s important to avoid the “once and done” attitude. Review safety policies yearly to be sure they are keeping up with technology and business practices. Be sure your records reflect ongoing health and safety training — not just a box ticked off for new hires.

Employee specific reviews. Accident-prone employees usually make management’s radar fairly easily, as do employees who have health issues. However, there are areas needing review today that are often overlooked: gender issues and an aging workforce.

Unfortunately, organizations — and this includes businesses and OSHA — usually fail at recognizing workplace safety issues that specifically impact women. Writing on this subject for Occupational Hazards, Lyn Penniman points out that there are certain industries where a majority of the workers are women, health care for example. Also, some workplace hazards can threaten a woman’s reproductive health. Management must be sensitive to these issues when reviewing workplace health and safety.

Businesses that have been operating for many years with a crew of loyal employees may have an aging workforce that needs specific consideration. Lifting and other physical requirements should be revisited to see if they are still appropriate. As the bubble of Baby Boomers reaches retirement age — and with many of them working until much later in their lives — this will be an important issue for many organizations.

Psychological safety. We tend to think of workplace safety in terms of physical dangers, but today psychological issues are gaining much more attention. Sexual harassment has been often discussed and every organization should have a clear policy that is taught, trained, and enforced. Today workplace bullying is in the news, and it is something every management team should address. Computer Weekly reported that a study done in the UK among IT workers found that 80 percent had experienced workplace bullying.

When companies fail to tend to workplace psychological safety, it leads to stress-related illnesses and absences, turnover, errors, defective work, and even workplace violence. Writing for Caterer & Hotelkeeper, James Hall points out that with the increased presence of social media in the workplace, management must begin to deal with cyber bullying.

Safety and health programs

After an honest and thorough assessment of risks and current status, it’s time to craft or rework the organizational safety and health program. In the climate today — and considering the costs outlined in the opening paragraph of this article — it’s important to go beyond programs that are “just good enough.” This is where management’s commitment to workplace safety and health begins to permeate the organization and become part of “how we do things around here.”

Leadership. Consider putting a high-ranking company official in charge of your program. Over the years rotate this individual. This will help build and reinforce your organization’s proactive attitude toward safety.

Training versus written procedures. Good written procedures must be in place; they are an integral part of any good safety program. However, they are not a substitute for training. Some businesses create the procedures and have them essentially initialed by employees just for the sake of passing an audit at some point in time.

Procedures are only effective when they are followed up by adequate training and retraining. In many instances, a qualified trainer should be responsible for determining whether or not an employee has the ability to carry out established safety procedures.

Another cost-effective strategy to maintain quality control over health and safety training is to incorporate e-learning modules. Lighthouse offers a large catalog of courses, including one that covers the environmental, health, and safety information new hires need to know.

Physical plant and equipment. Periodic review of your facilities is required. Often the focus of an operation can change and facilities are hastily reconfigured to meet the demands of the new situation. Basic OSHA requirements along with ergonomics must be reassessed on a formal basis. Further basic elements such as escape plans, building code compliance, and whether or not employees have adequate space to perform their duties must be revisited regularly.

Communication and notification systems.
Part of your program should include channels of communication that make it easy for employees to forward their concerns to management. Pressures to meet production quotas from supervisors and coworkers can be an impediment to workers coming forward. An anonymous hotline can solve this problem and help companies resolve issues in a timely manner and avoid dangerous and costly situations.

With a proactive program that is alert to changing business conditions and an evolving workforce, it’s possible to prevent many of the unsafe working conditions that drive up the costs of doing business.

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