Creating a 'culture of safety'

Nov. 10, 2005
Regulations and procedures are not enough if workers don't buy into the program.

Workers are more apt to comply with safety regs when personal protective equipment is appropriate and comfortable.

Even shops that comply with OSHA-mandated regulations can be dangerous places. Most shop managers comply with safety mandates and realize that improved safety equals improved productivity and earnings. However, buying the right protection and implementing specific safety procedures such as Risk Management Plans, Process Hazards Analysis and Emergency Procedures is often not enough.

Safety surveys indicate that only about half of all shop workers comply with safety procedures and programs.

However, productive and accident-free workplaces are the norm when facilities commit to creating a "culture of safety" among employees.

Putting safety first on the shop floor involves engineering, training, and the intelligent application of personal protective equipment (PPE). Building an effective safety program, or a "culture of prevention," takes close cooperation among management, safety directors, employees and safety-equipment suppliers. When shopfloor workers feel their company is doing all it can to keep them safe, they develop a desire to become part of the safety culture, and compliance rates increase.

Shops become safer when workers slow down a little and think about how what they are doing may harm them. An important part of employee-safety training is changing behavioral patterns from risk-taking to taking care. Most shop employees are highly trained and well educated. The use of sophisticated technology, along with an investment in education and human capital, have created a culture of productivity among U.S. workers unmatched in the developed, industrialized world. This focus on productivity often results in less attention given to safety issues.

Behavior-modification safety programs are available through full-service equipment distributors or from workplace safety/environmental-engineering companies. Employees involved in such programs learn the basic elements of the safety system, including proper use of PPE, and eventually accept the idea that change isnotonlypossible, butintheirbestinterest by preventing injuries. These programs also offer opportunities for management and safety teams to observe and improve individual and group behavior.

Offering rewards as an incentive for safe behavior and compliance is another way to help raise safety awareness. But, T-shirts and logo caps alone will not change behavior. Regular safety audits, in conjunction with training, help to ensure that dangerous attitudes and behaviors are eliminated or controlled. Employees must want to comply to keep their workplace safe, not just to be rewarded.

A team approach, involving the plant safety director, purchasing staff and a safety specialist, is best for establishing a culture of prevention. Safety specialists assess potential risks through a comprehensive audit and analysis of a plant safety program, including input from employees and management. An appendix to OSHA 1910, Nonmandatory Compliance Guidelines for Hazard Assessment and PPE Selection (1910 Subpart I Appendix B) recommends such a facility survey "to assess the need for PPE by determining hazards and level of risk to employees."

Some full-service safety-equipment distributors offer facility-safety audits at no charge, including written recommendations on equipment and training. Completing a safety survey and implementing an improved PPE program reduce the occurrence of costly accidents and produce savings resulting from more efficient purchasing. A safety counsel familiar with metalworking shops can spot hazards lurking for which no worker protection has been identified or assigned and ones that can be engineered away.

Employees should talk with safety counsels and discuss what they think they need to get the job done safely. Machine operators are experts in their tasks. When given some say in a decision regarding safety, they tend to comply.

A facility-safety audit can help change the focus of a PPE program from simple compliance to compliance plus added value. For example, if a shop's current protocol is to buy the least expensive protective wear for each application (basic compliance), an analysis might reveal that higher quality equipment would last longer and provide greater comfort and protection, resulting in long-term cost savings and enhanced worker productivity. Also, by evaluating equipment usage, an audit reveals opportunities for achieving economies of scale.

Providing the optimal level of PPE is not only economical, but it also goes a long way toward getting workers to buy into the program. For instance, a safety audit might show that instead of a heavy glove, a light, flexible one is best for a particular task. Buying lighter, flexible gloves saves money on glove purchasing and reduces worker fatigue thereby improving productivity.

For another task, the audit might uncover the need for eye protection with a soft foam edge to keep dust and perspiration out of workers' eyes. The money saved on glove purchases is now available for buying eye protection. In addition to improving worker productivity, the new eye protection is popular with the work force. The comfortable gloves and eye protection are more likely to stay on improving compliance which, in turn, reduces accidents.

Most manufacturing processes involve potentially dangerous equipment, and every facility has the responsibility of minimizing risks by removing or reducing hazards uncovered through ongoing safety monitoring. Organizations such as the Institute for Safety Through Design, an entity of the National Safety Council, help to reduce shopfloor injuries by promoting the design of systems and machinery using practical and proven safety concepts and techniques.

In most shops, the dangers associated with machinery often get more attention than less obvious safety hazards. For example, safety issues resulting from poor illumination, improper ventilation and unsafe sound levels, to name a few, can lead to decreased production and excessive employee absences. A facility safety audit ensures a thorough evaluation of all hazards and results in a well-conceived PPE program and a safer work environment.


While protecting workers is a mandate required by OSHA 1910, Subpart I, 1910.132(a), the resultant investment in worker safety might seem like a draw on profitability. But, consider this:

Every year the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, reports millions of occupational injuries causing lost workdays. In 2004, over 5,000 workplace fatalities occurred due to accidents. Protective equipment within a culture of prevention could have prevented a significant number of these accidents.

According to OSHA estimates, each avoided occupational fatality saves (on average) $910,000, each prevented injury or illness resulting in time away from work saves $28,000 and each avoided serious injury or illness saves $7,000.

The cost of injuries to American industry — including wage losses, medical expenses and administrative costs, plus environmental, training and temporary-labor and repair costs — was $125.1 billion in 1998 and escalated to $131.2 billion in 2000. In contrast, the total industrial market spent $3.8 billion on personal-protective equipment in 2000. Clearly, industry must take a closer look at all facets of workplace accident prevention.

Mr. Cowie is president and chief operating officer at Safety Today's Protective Product Group in Columbus, Ohio.

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