One quick glance at a few occupational safety highlights from the National Safety Council proves just how important workplace safety is. In 2020, for example:
- Preventable medically consulted injuries totaled four million.
- Preventable injury-related deaths totaled 4,113.
- The cost of it all came in at $163.9 billion.
- The most dangerous industries were categorized as:
- transportation and warehousing
- mining, which included oil and gas extraction
- agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting
- professional and business services
While the death rate was the first decrease since 2016, the statistics also noted a nine-percent decrease in hours worked due to the COVID pandemic. So, all told, workplace safety remains a tough problem for every type of business—from construction, transportation and manufacturing to healthcare, oil and gas extraction, and even leisure and hospitality.
Every business owner wants to know what they can do to prevent needless injuries and fatalities from happening on their watch. As the leading authority on safety in the workplace, OSHA—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—has developed some solid strategies that are adaptable to any industry anywhere.
1. Acknowledge the Hazardous Nature of the Industry
The truth is that many jobs in many industries involve hazards that simply are not optional.
Cranes have to lift and move loads. Freight is often intermodal and has to travel long distances. Natural resources must be extracted from beneath the earth’s surface. You can’t cut wood without saws, and you can’t do metalwork without fire or chemicals, for example. Even simpler, in hospitals and nursing homes all across the country, patients have to be moved.
In manufacturing plants, many of the machines that make everyday commodities are large enough to fit half a dozen engineers and maintenance techs inside at a time. Advancements in technology and science are fraught with potential dangers—everything from biohazards and chemical processes to radiation or reactive gasses. Even seemingly safe service industry jobs are still vulnerable to the number-one cause of workplace injuries—slips, trips, and falls.
To be safe, you need to recognize the dangers inherent in your line of business.
2. Control the Hazard
OSHA recommends a hierarchy of controls, a series of steps or options that can be applied to make hazards or risks as safe as possible.
- Elimination—Can you eliminate the hazard completely? While this is perhaps ideal, the only way to completely eliminate a safety issue may be to stop performing a process or service or to outsource it. If equipment is obsolete, it may be time to dispose of it and upgrade, but the point is that you may never be able to eliminate a risk entirely.
- Substitution—Could you replace the hazard with something safer or less risky? Do you need to upgrade or replace machinery or equipment, for example, or invest in new technology or a safer process? Could robotics or remote controls under workers’ direction perform dangerous tasks?
- Engineering Solutions—Can the hazard be changed, altered, relocated, or isolated, for example, to mitigate the risks associated with it? Could additional programming or additional physical safeguards solve the issue? Could railings or properly vented exhaust fans eliminate a potential problem?
- Administrative Solutions—Do you need to restrict access or permissions to certain areas, tasks, or processes? For example, who is allowed to direct the crane or rig loads? Or, do you need to invest in more staff training and education or a safety incentive program? Should you budget more for better quality PPE that workers will like and want to use—and make it readily available to them?
- Personal Protective Equipment—What PPE can help to protect workers from hazards that you are unable to eliminate? Some of the simplest items are hard hats, safety glasses, and rated gloves, for example, but even for those items, some brands offer better quality and safety features than others. If your workers need fall harnesses, are they up to standard for the job that the worker will be doing? More importantly, is a worker more or less likely to suffer suspension trauma if the supplied PPE activates?
The main caution with any change that you make is that you want to be certain that while you’re eliminating or mitigating one risk, you’re not introducing a new one. For example:
- Setting up barriers to eliminate the potential of the counterweight end of a crane pinning workers against stationary objects is an effective way to guard against the hazard. However, it could also form unsafe bottlenecks for people or vehicle collisions if spaces are insufficient.
- Relocating the crane—another choice—has its own risks in having to move it safely and recalculate the proper placement and counterweights.
You’ll need to test and monitor your changes to ensure that they had the effect you desired.
3. Make Safety a Focus of Company Culture
Workplace safety is too large of a challenge for one person, one unit of a company, or even a trusted cadre of supervisors. It takes 100-percent participation from everyone in a company from the top down. The surest way to have that kind of commitment is to offer your people involvement and responsibility at every level.
- Encourage workers to not only identify safety risks but also offer possible solutions. Workers want to be able to work and earn a wage, but they don’t want to get hurt. They may have very simple but effective solutions to many common risks.
- Expect workers to report workplace injuries and accidents. This is useful information that reveals where the risks are. You can’t fix what you don’t know about or cover up.
- Before you make a change, consult with the workers who will have to see it through. Managers and engineers often don’t understand the real-world impacts of what, in theory, might seem a beneficial change but isn’t realistically workable. Keeping knowledgeable workers in the loop can save you time, money, headaches, and do-overs.
- Build your in-house safety expertise at every level. You may need to invest in some formal training seminars or refresher training to teach new workers and remind experienced ones of the importance of safety and the right way of doing things. Every part of your business can add to or detract from a safe atmosphere—everyone from the finance and human resources departments to project managers, truck drivers and heavy equipment operators, and laborers.
- Hire reputable consultants when you need outside expertise, and pair them with your in-house teams. Decisions are only as good as the data they’re built upon. While many policies and guidelines are based on universal expectations, they are not one-size-fits-all. They often require the customization of institutional knowledge—in-house experience.
4. Consider a Safety Incentive Program
While incentive programs are a key part of building a company culture of safety, it’s such an important one that it deserves its own talking point. Programs that reward workers for safe work practices can be effective at keeping the number of workplace injuries and accidents at a minimum, but they have to be ethical in how they keep those numbers low.
- Policies should not discriminate against workers for reporting an event—even if it’s reported at a later date.
- Policies should not seek to punish workers who are injured or involved in an incident.
The idea behind these concerns is that unsafe practices might be overlooked as long as nothing goes wrong. For example, workers on a high-rise or multi-story job site should have all of their tools safely secured on tool tethers or lanyards. If the policy isn’t enforced, weeks may go by without an incident, but when one occurs, it’s a tape measure that drops 14 floors to strike and seriously injure someone. The incident is a scandal, and the urge to punish becomes strong. Had the rules of a safe work environment been enforced, however, the incident might never have happened.
Safety incentive programs should be based on a company’s official safety policy, and the safety policies and rules should be consistent in practice. All workers should be eligible for incentives, and incentives should be ethically appropriate—extra time off for safe workers, for example, versus a financial bonus only for supervisors. Above all, incentive programs should encourage workers to report injuries and incidents to keep the workplace safe.
5. Ensure Workers Know How To Handle Emergencies, Injuries, and Accidents
Think of it as a mega first aid kit for your company. Workers need to know what to do when something goes wrong.
After all, even the safest workplaces experience accidents. Equipment can malfunction for no other reason than it does. People are made of muscle and bone, and sometimes bodies fail. Even weather can turn a perfectly ordered job site into chaos.
- Train—Knowing how to handle a critical event can be a matter of life or death for someone injured. Remember that fall harness mentioned earlier and suspension trauma? Some of the better harnesses have comfort padding and loops or straps that will allow a worker to better distribute or support their weight, but if the drop renders a person unconscious, every minute they remain suspended increases the chances of irreversible injury or a fatality. Other workers need to know how to respond quickly and appropriately to ensure the best outcome for everyone.
- Practice—People can remember up to 90 percent of what they learn if they use it immediately or teach it to someone else. If they practice, they remember, on average, about 75 percent. They’ll remember only about 5 percent from a lecture. This is why taking the time for drills or mock events is a worthwhile investment.
- Debrief—When an incident happens, investigate thoroughly and objectively. Then, be sure that everyone understands what happened and how you might be able to prevent similar challenges in the future. Accidents are times for asking tough questions and learning how to do better.
Developing ways to reduce workplace safety risks is a hot topic with a long, long lifespan. However, there are steps that employers can take to provide the safest work environment possible.
A safety program is only one component of a comprehensive workplace risk reduction plan. When it comes to insuring your workplace in case of risk, reach out to the experienced insurance consultants at Dwight Andrus Insurance. We can help you build an insurance plan that’s custom-fit for your business.