If you think workplace safety programs aren’t worth the investment, consider this case from consulting firm Excite Safety Training:
An electrician was called in to finish a project. The previous electrician, a 19-year-old apprentice, couldn’t get it done.
Why not? He was in the hospital. In a vegetative state. After being electrocuted on the job.
In a matter of seconds, he went from fit and healthy to a lifetime in a nursing home. He could not sit up, wash, dress, or speak. His family faced devastating medical bills.
Bills that ultimately could put his employer out of business.
This accident, and thousands like it every year, could have been prevented had a simple safety plan for live electricity been enforced.
So if you still think you don’t need a workplace safety program, realize that it’s neither as difficult nor as costly as you might think. Plenty of resources exist to help you through the process, which can be broken down into six basic steps:
- Economics of safety
- Culture of safety
- Awareness of surroundings
- Training is essential
- Provide visual aids
- Use the right PPE
1. Economics of safety
Employers in every industry should know how workplace injuries can impact not only productivity but also the bottom line. In 2016 alone, nearly 3 million non-fatal workplace injuries were reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics by private industry employers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that employers pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone.
Direct costs associated with workplace injuries include workers’ comp, medical expenses, legal fees, and higher insurance premiums. Indirect costs can include emotional damage to the team, the cost of training a new employee, OSHA fines, overtime hours to cover the loss of an employee, and damaged equipment, among others.
The National Safety Council suggests that on average, a death in the workplace costs a business $1.42 million. That number can climb as high as $3 million depending on indirect costs.
The NSC also says that every $1 invested in injury prevention returns between $2 and $6. Even in the event of an accident and payout, insurance companies will consider whether a business had a workplace safety program in place when determining future insurance premiums. In some cases, having a workplace safety program can even save companies millions in litigation.
The 2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index offers data on 2013 workplace injuries. According to the report, the top five most disabling injuries and related direct costs were:
- Overexertion, such as “lifting, pushing, pulling, holding, carrying, or throwing” ($15.08 billion)
- Falls on the same level ($10.17 billion)
- Falls to lower level ($5.40 billion)
- Struck by object or equipment ($5.31 billion)
- Other exertions or bodily reactions ($4.15 billion)
The total direct costs of all top 10 workplace events came in at $61.88 billion.
Still need convincing? Take the case of Daeil USA, a maker and supplier of auto parts. OSHA cited the company’s manufacturing facility in Valley, Ala., for one willful, five repeated, 10 serious, and one other safety violation and assessed fines of more than $171,000—not exactly chump change. “Management at this facility has adopted a productivity-over-safety mentality and repeatedly claims it is ‘too expensive’ to address the safety hazards found in this workplace,” Joseph Roesler, OSHA’s area director in Mobile, said in announcing the fines. “The safety culture of this company must change immediately.”
And $171K is by no means on the high end of fines. After OSHA found more than 1,000 worker injuries at the Ashley Furniture Industries facility in Arcadia, Wis., in only 36 months, it levied fines totaling $1.76 million. One worker lost three fingers while operating a dangerous woodworking machine without required safety mechanisms in place. More than 100 of the reported injuries involved similar machinery.
It’s not always about just huge, dramatic fines, either. Every employee injury costs more than what you might believe. For example, a serious injury might easily cost $60,000 in direct medical costs and an additional $60,000 in indirect costs. To recover that $120,000, a business with a 3 percent bottom-line profit would have to immediately generate an additional $4 million in sales to cover the cost of the accident.
2. Culture of safety
All of this adds up to a simple bottom line for businesses: You can’t afford not to have a safety program.
To make it work, safety must become your top priority. When thinking through your strategies, sharing them with employees, and implementing them in the workplace, you must clearly communicate your commitment at every step of the process.
Establish a written policy signed by top management that details the organization’s commitment to in-house employees as well as contractors and vendors. Then, the more you emphasize safety frequently in casual conversation—and lead by example—the better results your program will create.
Define your program’s goals—reducing injury-related absenteeism among employees, lowering insurance premiums and workers’ comp payouts, etc.—and allocate sufficient resources to achieve them. Not every step you take needs to be a major expenditure, of course, but don’t cut corners to save a few dollars.
Plan carefully and update often. A good way to begin is by downloading a safety checklist and following it item by item. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also publishes a small-business handbook that provides a wealth of information for establishing safety protocols.
An important focus in the modern workplace is ergonomics. OSHA reports that work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2013 MSD cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases.
Soliciting and heeding employee feedback on procedures, equipment, and environment is a crucial part of an ergonomically friendly workplace. Those who are on the front lines, using tools and machinery every day—whether computers or more labor-intensive, potentially dangerous devices—should have as much input into changes being made as possible.
Identify problems and be on guard for risk factors, such as workers modifying their tools, shaking their arms and hands because of tingling or pain, rolling their neck and shoulders, or bringing such products as wrist and forearm braces to the workplace.
Establishing a simple mechanism for reporting incidents and encouraging employees to come forward promptly is one of the most important factors in any safety program. It is much easier and less costly for everyone involved if workers are encouraged to bring matters directly to the attention of their immediate manager—and to respond to their complaints promptly and sincerely—than it is to involve OSHA in the process.
3. Awareness of surroundings
Once you have the basics of a safety plan in place, fill it out by accounting for any special challenges that your environment poses. Take frequent safety walks of your premises to hunt for hazards, collect ideas on how to control them, and implement the best suggestions. Involving rank-and-file employees can give them a sense of ownership in the process of promoting safety.
Among best practices to consider:
- De-clutter. Toss, recycle, or donate items that you no longer need. Store materials, especially hazardous substances, properly. Stack containers in a way that will reduce the risk of falling objects. Keep all walkways clear of tripping hazards. Make sure that if extension cords must be used in high-traffic areas, they are clearly marked and secured with strong tape. Ensure that tools are hung on walls or stored in toolboxes or on sturdy shelving.
- Check for electrical hazards. Remember that electrocution is one of the top five causes of workplace deaths, and workers younger than 25 have the highest rate of death from electrical shock. Check electrical cords for wear before starting work. If you’re outside or in a wet location, be sure tools and extension cords are suitable for outdoor use and circuits are equipped with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs).
- Eliminate fire hazards. Define and describe escape routes, and train employees on their role in evacuation. Ensure that exits are clearly marked and fire extinguishers are easily available. Remove trash and recycling, especially flammables like cardboard and paper. Keep floors swept and control debris and sawdust. Check containers of combustible liquids and gases to prevent any leakages.
- Assess potential plumbing hazards. Seek out and repair minor leaks before they grow into major problems. Clean debris from sink and floor drain traps to ensure unimpeded flow of water. Check electrical functions on sump pumps. Clear materials from around building exteriors so rainwater is not trapped and seeps into foundations. In cold climates, ensure that outdoor faucets are insulated against freezing.
4. Implement training
No matter what kind of health and safety program you establish, it won’t amount to anything unless there is concurrent training to help employees become fully versed in your plan. As the National Safety Council says, “Workplace safety culture begins with a well-trained workforce,” and in recent years thousands of companies have sprung up that specialize in helping businesses conform to OSHA reviews or perform common-sense safety reviews.
Countless resources exist, from pamphlets to videos to online courses to consultations for custom training. OSHA’s Hazard Identification Training Tool is an interactive, game-based training apparatus for small-business owners, workers, and others interested in learning the core concepts of hazard identification.
There are, of course, numerous common-sense policies that employees can follow: Do not let anyone use tools or heavy machinery until they have demonstrated proficiency. Emphasize lifting and carrying safely—yes, it’s hard to believe, but even in 2018 people need to be reminded to lift with their legs, not with their backs (and to wear lower-back support belts). Require employees to wear work-appropriate clothing, including hardhats, steel-toed boots, and safety goggles as necessary. Keep first aid kits stocked and medications up to date.
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries also offers, among many others, these tips:
- Running propane- or other fuel-powered equipment indoors can cause deadly amounts of carbon monoxide to build up quickly inside rooms and other enclosed work areas.
- Maintain a 35-foot clearance from downed power lines because they may still be energized.
- When driving, get in the habit of turning on your headlights when you turn on your windshield wipers for rain. This will help make your vehicle more visible to others.
- Push, don’t pull. Pushing allows you to use your body weight and larger muscles to move a load.
- Step ladders should never be used when folded up and leaning against a surface.
Another important consideration is reducing workplace stress. Employees who feel an extra burden to make deadlines or fill quotas are more likely to work recklessly and without regard for their safety or that of their co-workers. Those who feel it necessary to work repeated overtime because of low salary can be pushed to the limit much of the time.
Other mental and emotional health issues can evoke daring or foolish behavior that involves disregard for safe work practices. Horseplay is never appropriate on the job and often leads to disciplinary action. For those who use heavy equipment, daydreaming and not paying attention can cause serious injury, or even death. A troubled or distracted mind is at risk for an accident.
In this day and age, it seems incredible to have to include it on a list of important safety considerations, but working sober should not be taken for granted. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, from 2008 to 2012, full-time construction and mining workers had the highest rates of past month alcohol use (17.5% and 16.5%). When it came to illicit drug use for full-time employees ages 18 to 64, the hospitality and food services industry and the arts and entertainment industry surpassed other workplaces at 19.1% and 13.7%.
5. Provide visual aids
Posting signs advocating safe behavior may seem obvious to the point of cliché, but its importance cannot be overstated. Such signage keeps eyes busy and brains alert and active. Even better than employing tried-and-true but tiresome slogans (“Safety Begins With You!”), try having employees keep track of and record daily safety information—such as a running total of injury-free days—in their particular departments. Hands-on participation can be a major catalyst in changing safety culture.
If you do choose to use slogans, have a varied collection and rotate them frequently to keep the message fresh—and emphasize images over simply words. Humans are, after all, visual creatures, and engaging use of graphic design will deliver your message more efficiently than text-heavy posters.
Visual Workplace Inc. offers these suggestions for important safety and emergency notification systems:
- Post safety audit results on a regular basis and document improvements.
- Identify and track safety performance goals, and address improvements.
- Utilize visual tools, such as the safety cross calendar, to track days without recordable injuries.
- Establish standardized work instructions for handling chemicals. Identify personal protective equipment requirements and make it available to team members.
- Ensure safety items (fire extinguishers, eye wash stations, personal protective equipment) are visually identified, unobstructed, and inspected regularly.
- Visually display emergency evacuation procedures and routes for all team members.
- Ensure exits are clearly marked and unobstructed.
- Control first aid supplies using a visual system.
- Ensure hazardous waste has a clearly identified location and disposal instructions are displayed.
- Electric circuit breaker panels and emergency shut-offs should be labeled and unobstructed.
- Identify high-noise areas and ensure hearing protection is available and used.
Video is, of course, extremely popular in the workplace these days, and appealing to employees with lighthearted or humorous videos that still deliver the safety message has proven effective. Anything to break up monotony and engage workers will go a lot farther than the same old “Lift Carefully!” posters.
6. Use the right PPE
While every industry has its own risks, some are inherently more dangerous than others and employers must provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for their workers. The most common form of PPE is gloves, especially disposables. Whether it’s protection from harsh chemicals in automotive or general industrial applications, avoiding cross-contamination in food-related uses, or preventing the spread of infection in the healthcare universe, gloves are an essential tool for safety.
All employees must be educated on how to use PPE, and all gear should fit well and be comfortable, or employees will be disinclined to wear it. When it comes to disposable gloves for barrier protection, employers need to be mindful of thickness, chemical resistance, puncture resistance, fit, comfort, and latex sensitivities. In addition to gloves, companies may require other protective coverings.
Shoe covers can make a big difference in preventing slips and falls because their rubberized soles provide better traction. Coveralls are great for protecting house inspectors and others who must expose themselves to dirt, bugs, and hazardous conditions. Hair and beard protection are common in food service and processing.
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