Although the cost of doing business continues to rise, one area where we can improve or control costs is worker health and safety. According to the National Safety Council, the annual cost of worker injuries and illnesses per incident is about $39,000. With recordable incident rates reported by the Bureau of Labor for 2006 indicating losses between 4.5 and 5.9 cases per 100 employees, these costs can be devastating to overcome.
The costs are reported here only as a real and tangible fact when our employees are injured or become sick on the job. The human factor of an injury can be devastating to each individual, company or employee group. Worker health and safety continues to be a focus that has helped reduce losses and costs for many companies and workers. The effort, however, is continuous and must remain a core value in conducting business.
Where to begin?
Compliance begins with a commitment and a health and safety program that is tailored to fit the company, blend with its unique operations and culture, and help employers maintain a system that continually addresses workplace injuries and illnesses. Every effective program should include management commitment and leadership, employee involvement, workplace analysis, hazard prevention and control, safety and health training, and performance goals and measurement.
The responsibility for worker health and safety is a team effort. It begins with a strong management commitment and is integrated into all areas of operation. Plant managers and other supervisors need to have an understanding and a working knowledge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) regulations and have the skills to fully implement a program.
When OSHA inspectors come in to evaluate a company, one of the first things they look for is a written health and safety program, along with training documentation and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), if applicable. But I never tell a client we’re creating a health and safety program just to be OSHA compliant; we’re creating the program because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also a good return on investment, because preventing employee injuries saves the company money. For small or newer companies, avoiding downtime can make the difference in whether the company survives.
The larger the firm, the easier it is to designate a health and safety officer and to develop a safety committee. The smaller the company and the fewer the employees, the easier it is for health and safety measures to be overlooked or missed.
Responsibility for employee safety always rests at the top with the owner or the manager, but it is typically the plant manager or the first-line supervisor who is most capable of keeping workers safe. They have direct, day-to-day contact with the workers, and they need to be aware of what resources and tools need to be made available. The safest companies, however, are those where employers and employees work together to make safety and health a priority and a responsibility that is equal with production and quality.
This partnership can be achieved by involving employees in health and safety policymaking and committees and by posting the company’s written safety and health policy for all to see. Workers engaged in plant maintenance activities often are the best sources for recognizing hazards and supporting injury prevention. Management shows its commitment by investing time, effort and money in the company’s safety and health program, incorporating all employees in the critical role of prevention activities and holding regular meetings that focus on employee health and safety.
Analyzing the problem
An important tool in a company’s safety and health program includes an initial and ongoing workplace safety audit or analysis. To conduct a worksite analysis, plant managers and their employees must analyze all worksite conditions to identify and eliminate existing or potential hazards. The analysis must include observations of work practices and processes and feedback from employees. This should be done on a regular, timely basis and there should be an up-to-date hazard analysis for all jobs and processes that all employees know and understand. There are a number of Web sites that have checklists that can help develop an internal health and safety audit tool. One source is the OSHA Web site, where resources can be downloaded and modified for specific operations.
It’s important to involve employees in the hazard-analysis process and to include their knowledge of the job and its tasks. This will help minimize oversights, ensure a quality analysis and get workers to "buy in" to the solutions, because they will share ownership in the health and safety program.
Plant managers should review their worksite’s history, including accidents and occupational illnesses that needed treatment, losses that required repair or replacement, and any near-misses in which an accident did not occur but could have. These are indicators that the existing hazard controls might not be adequate and can provide critical historical information to identify necessary operational improvements.
Plant managers should discuss with their employees the hazards they know exist in their current work surroundings. They should collectively brainstorm ideas on how to eliminate or control those hazards. Don’t wait until a job hazard analysis is complete or an incident occurs to fix any problems that can be easily corrected.
An ounce of prevention
To maintain a good safety and health program, work environment and work practices should be continually reviewed to control or prevent workplace hazards. Begin by regularly and thoroughly maintaining all equipment. Ensure that hazard correction procedures are in place and that all trained employees understand and follow safe work procedures. There are many good resources and programs that include tools for recognition and control of workplace incidents that lead to injuries or illnesses. Many include time to observe workplace behaviors and education to prevent hazardous conditions.
Plant managers should ensure that all employees who need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) receive it, know how to use it and also maintain their equipment. There are compliance regulations specifically pertaining to the selection and the use of PPE. If employees working in a plant that contains hazardous material require a respirator, those workers need to be medically evaluated, fit tested and trained to understand how to wear a respirator. If their work requires contact with, or working near, chemical treatment processes, MSDS must be readily available onsite. Making sure that employees' gloves, body protection or other barriers between chemicals and skin are made of the proper materials is critical when protecting workers who deal with hazardous waste or work with unknown contaminants. These preventive measures should be regarded as a basic part of good plant management within the vast area of responsibility of the building and operations support team.
A safety checklist is a good idea, because there are many hazards associated with building and manufacturing process management. Many items on the safety checklist address hazards that can occur even before work is started. Everything on the checklist should be covered by specific training for building and plant staff. If a job requires workers to travel to another state, some states might require specific trades to be certified in that state, so check the state’s Web site beforehand. In this age of computers, laptops are becoming a standard part of field equipment. Load your safety checklist onto your computer or PDA, and check the steps off as you go. You will then have a permanent record for your compliance files.
Training is essential
When I’m assisting a company, whether with complying with OSHA regulations or measuring the effectiveness of its program, one of the first things I review is the effectiveness of worker training. Even if a company has limited resources, this is a critical part of an effective safety and health program. Giving workers the understanding necessary to complete a job, to recognize hazards and to know how to prevent an injury must never be overlooked. Even with the many languages spoken by today’s workforce, there are many resources available through state and federal programs to overcome the language barrier, improve communications and boost the effectiveness of a training program.
It is vital that everyone in the workplace be properly trained, from the electricians to the HVAC engineers and the janitorial staff to the supervisors, managers, contractors, part-time employees and temporary workers. To ensure that workers are thoroughly trained, hold emergency preparedness drills and train supervisors and managers to recognize hazards and understand their responsibilities. Allow only properly authorized and instructed employees to do specific jobs and pay particular attention to employees learning new operations to make sure that they have the proper job skills and hazard awareness.
Hazards that are often overlooked by a facility’s maintenance staff include confined spaces, lockout systems, electrical systems, treatment chemicals and ergonomic stresses. It is important that plant maintenance managers provide their staff with the necessary tools, resources and training to ensure they are effectively educated in preventing loss-related incidents. Employees are a company's most valuable resource, and the protection of life on the job is a responsibility never to be taken for granted. Given the right information, training, tools and PPE, workers will be safe on the job and the bottom line won't be adversely affected by monetary losses incurred when someone is injured or becomes sick.
A health and safety plan is only as good as the company’s compliance with that plan. For a new company, a hazard assessment must be made and a health and safety plan has to be in place before the work can begin. Compliance with a health and safety program is an essential management tool, a good business practice and a moral obligation.
To learn more about occupational health and safety issues, or to access a list of industrial hygiene consultants, visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association Web site at www.aiha.org.
Gary Ganson is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and has 30 years of experience in the field of worker health and safety. He is the manager of EHS for Terracon Consultants Inc. and is the office manager for one of their Kansas City, Mo., offices.