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The Next Step In Workplace Safety: Empower The Employees

Overall workplace safety performance around the globe has improved over the last 60 years, but for the last 10 years it has stalled. After 30 years in the safety management business, I believe that to...

July 1, 2009  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Overall workplace safety performance around the globe has improved over the last 60 years, but for the last 10 years it has stalled. After 30 years in the safety management business, I believe that to get past the current level of stagnation in industrial safety performance, employers should shift the focus of their safety strategy to an employee-managed approach that will not only generate new gains in safety performance but facilitate much improved cost benefit analysis and control for safety initiatives.

There are two problems that need to be addressed. One, despite dramatic reductions in overall work related accident/ illness rates (total medical cases), global safety progress as measured by fatalities and severe injury/illness rates is stalled, and has been for at least 10 to20 years. Studies in recent years indicate that fatalities and high-severity/low frequency injuries have different causal factors than less severe but more frequent incidents.

Two, for the most part, current safety metrics can demonstrate empirically, or through correlation, the improvements or lack of improvements in outcomes following safety interventions but they do not demonstrate exactly why or how these interventions succeeded or failed.


Moving beyond the status quo

So how do we get to the next level in safety performance if the current approaches, good as they me be, have stalled? The challenge is to develop tools and strategies to achieve the following:

1. Substantial reductions in fatality and high-severity injury/illness rates.

2. Continued reductions in the total accident rate (Total Medical Case Rate or Total Recordable Incident rate).

3. Lower total cost of safety to the enterprise which is composed of both prevention and failure costs.

Suggested strategies are:

Safety metrics: Improve the methods and techniques of measuring the effectiveness of safety initiatives by using continuous hazard feedback from all workers, (not just management, staff and safety specialists).

Residual hazard management: The conventional safety management systems need complementary support by workers, especially to manage residual hazards at the workface.

Values-based empowerment: The application of the above initiatives is best achieved by first explaining the approach to all employees and involving them in developing the process from the beginning, starting with the alignment of safety with other enterprise values such as production, quality, and cost.

Cost and managerial fiscal reality: Better safety metrics will allow enterprise financial managers to establish the real financial benefits of proposed safety initiatives to the enterprise. This leads to better overall safety performance at lower cost to the enterprise through managerial fiscal reality or the ability to allocate scarce resources more efficiently.

The missing piece in the puzzle

The single common denominator in the aforementioned disappointing con clusions is safety metrics. That is, the inability to link cause and effect. In other words, we are able to measure the outcomes (rates of losses, failures) of our collective safety interventions but we are unable to explain which ones are truly effective and why. Until we can do exactly that, we will make no progress. Improvements in all of the other above items are dependent on resolving this single major obstacle. An old Chinese proverb states “Only when you know why you have hit the target can you truly say you have learnt archery.”

My suggestion is that no safety initiative should be considered unless a method for measuring its performance is established and applied.

Promising Developments

Looking ahead, the picture is not all one of doom and gloom. There are some promising developments on the horizon.

Thinking outside the box: Safety professionals are questioning everything about workplace safety: the way we define it, measure it, achieve it, what it costs, and even their own ability to contribute to safety improvement and business goals, and whether they have a future in this business.

For example, in a 2004 article in Professional Safety, Packer Engineering consultants Curry, Quinn, Atkins, & Carlson explained why experienced workers were still having serious injuries and concluded that “the only truly viable long-term strategy for increasing workplace safety lies in combining normal safe design, guarding, and warning strategies with the fostering of an increased understanding among workers of the actual risk involved in their activities.” This sentiment is echoed by Hatscan, a reputable safety training company in Alberta. In a due diligence training course, Hatscan states, “The single most frequent cause of accidents is failing to take the time to think through the work, identify the hazards, and deal with them.” New strategies suggest achieving risk reduction by focusing on hazard identification and exposure reduction rather than through hazard elimination as being more realistic and less costly.

The business case for safety: In the April 2009 issue of Professional Safety, a group closely associated with the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety (LMRIS) in the U. S. authored a very revealing article titled Financial Decision Makers’ Views on Safety. It was part of a larger study performed in 2007. More than 200 corporate financial decision makers in medium-to large-size companies (100 employees or more) were surveyed. The focus was to explore their perceptions of the leading safety priorities, concerns, and losses. The top priorities cited as the leading causes of workers’ compensation losses, causes of concern, and targets for future resource allocation were:

• overexertion,

• repetitive motion

• bodily reaction injuries.

Fatalities were not mentioned.

Although this group favoured more/better safety-focused training as the best safety intervention, they did not elaborate as to why they believed this, nor did they appear to understand the importance of other safety interventions. In conclusion, they said that the top benefits of an effective workplace safety program were predominantly financial in nature (e. g. increased productivity, reduced costs), claiming an average ROI for safety initiatives of US$4.41 per $1 spent on safety.

Yet there appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of financial decision makers as to exactly what safety interventions are effective and why. Nonetheless, it is reassuring to note that these financial managers essentially believe in the business case for safety, that it has a positive impact on productivity and cost reduction, and that they are receptive to what they believe will be cost-effective safety initiatives.

What is safety really all about? What is the ultimate fundamental activity that leads to incident-free performance on the job? It is the removal of the cause or causes that lead to undesired workplace incidents and losses. Safety management is defined by the Health and Safety Executive, a form of national safety council in the U. K., as simply a process that converts uncontrolled hazards into controlled hazards. Success or failure in achieving workplace safety boils down to how well we identify uncontrolled hazards and then control them, where control involves either hazard elimination (preferable) or exposure avoidance. More specifically, this is done through hazard management.

A 2005 American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) survey of more than 5000 safety professionals revealed that the two most important elements for them (or anyone else) to effectively manage workplace safety were:

• understand the hazards present and the risks associated with them, and

• be able to convince the workforce to act in a safe manner.

Good hazard management is the key to a safe workplace. How do we do this? For many years Occupational Heal
th and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS) have been the method of preference at trying to either avoid the creation of hazards at the source in the first place or, failing that, providing management-driven safety rules, regulations, and strict work procedures and practices to avoid them. They are fairly effective but experience has shown that they are far from perfect at eliminating the hazard burden at the point-of-risk or worker/workplace interface. They appear to have reached their optimal performance point only where properly implemented.

In reality, most OHS management systems do not operate at peak performance as they are not fully implemented and/or do not have the proper feedback to measure and improve performance.

So how do we complement or improve on hazard management by the OHSMS? We need a solution to manage residual and new hazards/risks at the point-of-risk as well as providing continuous, real-time feedback to management on the failings of the OHSMS at filtering out hazards upstream of the point-of-risk

That solution is the knowledgeable worker!

Every single employee should be involved in hazard management (during every shift and every work day), not just the safety specialists, supervisors, engineers, and managers. The more eyes the better.

The current problem with high-severity injuries and fatalities requires new, innovative solutions as the causes are different from the typical high-frequency, low-severity injuries on which much of the past prevention theory and systems are based. The causes of these high-severity injuries are linked to sudden changes to routine operating conditions or to non-routine work conditions and tasks that introduce new hazards at the point-of-risk. Due to the dynamic nature of these hazards and risks, the worker is required to adapt and adjust quickly to the changes on the fly.

The worker is best placed to provide feedback to management on the hazards that are not being filtered out by the OHSMS upstream hazard detection/ control activities. Management can then correct and improve these safety management systems.

Ownership and empowerment: The caveat here is that every employee needs to be part of the entire project from the beginning, with the opportunity to participate in establishing core enterprise safety values and to provide input on safety content, planning, implementation, and maintenance.

Above all, it must be simple!

Involve everyone in hazard management

The most profound yet simple indicator of a safe operation I ever heard of came from an Australian bank study of three different companies regarding their compliance to Australia-New Zealand’s AS/NZS 4801 occupational safety and health management system standard. The company that had the least documented system and the least level of compliance with the AS/NZS 4801 standard had the best safety performance.

All managers and employees of this company were clearly able to articulate the system and apply the key preventative activity -hazard management -as part of their everyday work activities.

The system developed and used by the company focused attention at a high level on three major elements: hazard management, leadership, and performance measurement.

The company had created a work environment where employees at all levels of the organization were actively participating in the decisions and processes that affected health and safety.

It clearly demonstrated the achievement of superior health and safety performance based on the elimination of risks to health and safety, and the creation of a workplace culture where safety was considered to be a critical feature that involved everyone at the workplace on an ongoing basis.


John Little is a risk management consultant and

can be reached at jelittle@videotron.ca

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