Safety is an issue popular among prudent managers in the American workplace today. Although probably more urgently necessary in high-risk environments such as construction sites or power and chemical plants, the milder sedentary office or sales floor still faces ergonomic risks as well as other potential hazards.

Lest you doubt the necessity of all this safety hoopla, let me remind you about the many costs of employee injury. Of course the company always insists that safety is “number one” because they care about and value their workers highly, and would be personally, emotionally devastated to hear of any injury, no matter how small. In truth, I suspect that many corporations rightly view small scrapes and near misses as symptoms of a deeper problem that could later manifest itself in a serious incident. “Serious” in this case usually means a lost work time incident, in which the employee has been injured so seriously that he has to leave work for treatment. In this situation, the employee is absent from work for an appreciable amount of time to receive medical treatment (taking a 5 minute break to apply a Band-Aid would fall into the category of first aid incident but probably not lost work time).

So it is guilt-wrenching to watch your minion be carted off to hospital due to some perceived oversight, and the employee’s well-being may truly be the manager’s primary concern. It is also very costly. Workplace injuries are billed to the company. Employers face paying for paid time off, medical bills, potential legal claims, loss of productivity due to the employee’s absence and possible employee tie-ups and equipment shutdown until the incident has been fully investigated, reported, mitigated, corrected, reviewed, root cause analyzed, approved, escalated, reviewed, re-approved and closed. That is a very long sentence designed to initiate you in what a pain in the ass it is to let someone hurt themselves under your supervision.

I should mention that my perspective in this happy family is as a sort of low to mid-level employee with no minions of my own, and precious few manager-like responsibilities. I’m paid by the hour. So the views above are most of what I can glean from the countless safety meetings and incident reviews I have been forced to participate in. I’ll also mention that I work for a specialty chemical company in the US, so if my analysis seems industrially or AMERICA! biased, you’re right, and you get a gold star.

It makes sense that they tell us the financial perspective as well as the emotional one. Safety training always falls down hard on the managers, and in the case of an incident, one of the popular root causes is “managerial pressure to rush.” Basically, “I was rushing and not thinking about what I was doing because I didn’t want to get in trouble for missing a deadline.” By emphasizing that injuries cost more than the company would lose by missing that deadline, the employer further encourages the employee to take time to plan and lay out the job, and to work thoughtfully, with a mind for safety.

There are many ways that employers attempt to preserve or improve their safety record. All of these take away from time that could be spent doing actual work, but most are effective in preventing accidents that could drastically interrupt employees’ ability to work. So call it a win, more or less. I’ve listed some of the methods I have been exposed to below.

The Safety Meeting:
Employees gather on a regular (monthly, weekly, quarterly) basis to talk about safety things.

Safety Captain:
Sometimes a representative is nominated to be the main contact for safety issues, and to proactively seek out unsafe situations and correct them. Often this position is rotated through the staff, so that everyone gets a chance to focus on safety.

Safety Department:
Many companies may employ one or more professionals to field safety questions, help investigate incidents, or work to keep the area OSHA compliant. Some companies may contract or employ an Industrial Hygienist to dictate the handling of toxic chemicals and wastes.

The Safety Inspection:
A group of designated employees (secret or announced) walk through the job site, recording unsafe conditions, or anything they see as an opportunity for injury. This may be presented to a manager or at a safety meeting (see above).

Behavior Based Safety:
Can be similar to the Safety Inspection, but instead of unsafe conditions, unsafe behavior is reviewed.

Organizational Systems:
There is a common belief that a clean and tidy workplace is less accident-prone, and that when the area is neatly organized, the employee will feel more calm and in control of his surroundings. Therefore there are many systems available to facilitate organization.

Start-up/Operation techniques:
When new equipment or materials are introduced to the workplace, start-up tools are used to review, document and train employees on the use of the equipment. In a chemical plant, for example, some start-up tools include Process Safety Review (PSR), Pre-startup Safety Review (PSSR), and Process Hazard Analysis (PHA). These are normally used to determine the inherent hazards and risks of the equipment. There are normally also operation tools, such as the Safe Operating Procedure (SOP), Job Safety Analysis (JSA) and other types of risk assessment.

Management of Change (MOC):
Whenever a piece of equipment or a process is modified, a MOC technique should be used to document and communicate that change. This prevents someone from unknowingly following an old procedure that could get them into trouble due to upgrades or adaptation.

If anyone has suggestions of other safety protocols that they’d like to see included here, drop me a line and I’ll add them.

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