What makes a good workplace safety program?

Sept. 1, 2000
Safety professionals discuss ergonomics, incentives and what makes a good safety program

The word “safety” brings up a multitude of images. When we were children, one of those images might have been a grade school safety monitor. Adorned with a plastic orange belt and safety monitor button, the monitor’s responsibility was to tell students to slow down on the newly mopped floor or to scold them for running with scissors.

Translate this scenario into the adult world of manufacturing. The badge-toting individuals are replaced by highly trained, well educated safety directors and consultants. Their jobs are somewhat different — making employees comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and keeping the workplace safe. 

However, safety doesn’t involve only wearing protective gear, complying with OSHA laws or watching safety videos; it’s an important dimension of the daily job.

Creating a safety culture

To create a plant culture that embraces safety, managers, safety directors and consultants work together to develop and execute suitable programs.

According to Scott Stricoff, president of Behavioral Sciences Technology Inc., (BST), Ojai, Calif., implementing a safety program at your plant involves three main components:

  • Equipment safety
  • Management and procedure
  • Behavioral techniques

“It’s at the interface of those three things that you have problems,” says Stricoff. “If you have very good equipment, people need to use it properly. If you want people to do the right thing and follow procedures, then the rules that govern them can’t be poorly written.”

Historically, improving machine safety has been the focus of most efforts, according to Stricoff. “But in the last 10 to 15 years, people have put more effort into developing better systems and focusing on the behavioral side.”

When working together, the three aspects of safety coexist nicely. It’s when they don’t that problems begin.

Within each plant, the safety culture evolves and changes on its own, says George Swartz, safety director at Midas International Corp., Itasca, Ill. What works at one plant may not translate to all the company’s plants. It has to be a custom-tailored program that meets the needs of that specific plant.

The safety culture is a mixture of issues, new and old, that affect the workers  and managers. Ergonomics, behavioral techniques and incentive programs are today’s safety issues.

Pain in the neck: debating ergonomics

When OSHA finally announced its proposed ergonomic standard in November 1999 after 10 years of review, controversy erupted over whether or not it would be beneficial.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 5.9 million people were injured on the job in 1998. Considering that 65% of of those injuries were attributed to repeated trauma, ergonomics is a substantial safety issue.

When the ergonomics proposal first came out, there was a movement against it, according to St. Louis, Mo.-based safety consultant Nick Shuput. People posted messages on the Web that blasted the ergonomics proposal. He worries that the debate conflicts with what people are actually trying to do — keep the work environment safe.

Problems and conflicts arise when trying to create and maintain an ergonomically healthy and hazard-free environment for workers, while not sacrificing productivity or coddling and questioning each specific employee.

Monitoring employees for the duration of their workday simply isn’t possible. “It’s difficult to monitor what kind of chair somebody is sitting in or repetitive stress from moving items from here to there,” Shuput explains. “The manager isn’t going to go around measuring somebody’s backside to determine whether or not the chair fits him.”

For the ergonomics program to be viable and to keep production going, an intrinsic effort is required, according to Austin, Texas-based safety consultant Coby Cullins. He encourages companies to conduct surveys in which employees circle the parts of their bodies that are in pain. Cullins agrees with Shuput that it’s not feasible to check  on an individual basis to make sure everyone is comfortable and that their jobs are ergonomically sound. Rather, he suggests using surveys.

“Ergonomics is, by definition, fitting the job to individual employees, but you can’t interview each employee,” says Cullins. “If you send out a survey and have it filled in, then you can analyze what the problems are.”

Swartz contends that safety programs should include ergonomics. When his Wisconsin plant experienced work-related injuries caused by poor ergonomics, he invested in no-slip mats, automatic boxing and machines with tilt carriers.

With the help of incentive programs, Swartz finds solutions for his safety-related problems. He even boasts that implementing new ergonomic safety policies raised productivity.

Rewards and incentives

Some plants give cash or gift incentives to employees who follow safety procedures or maintain low injury numbers. But safety experts debate whether these programs are truly beneficial. Many worry that the desire to obtain an incentive makes people more inclined to use false reporting methods.

“Incentive programs can really bite you,” says Shuput. “You have to be careful about the way you design them. Establishing goals for a safety program is one thing. But if you have a goal that seeks zero accidents, first, it’s not attainable. Second, you are setting the standard so high that it’s really going to hurt morale as well.”

Cullins agrees with Shuput — incentive programs sometimes encourage false reporting procedures. Cullins also explains, “I don’t like that companies use what I call promotional gimmicks as the whole emphasis of their safety program. Then we turn the focus away from employee protection to ‘hey, let’s try and win an award.’”

Swartz has no such problems and often uses incentive programs at many of his Midas plants. “Implementing an incentives program has a lot to do with a plant’s culture. When you say incentives, many people want to throw it out the window, but in some cases, they are warm to the idea.”

For the past 22 years, all of Midas’s lift truck employees have been going through training. If they score 100% on their test, they receive a forklift t-shirt. “People want those t-shirts,” Swartz says. “So they pay attention to the training movie and to what you say because they know they need so many points. That’s the incentive for them to pay attention.”

When Midas’s plants experienced problems with high injury levels, Swartz started a program that promoted a free trip to Hawaii. Each month, employees who are injury-free are entered into a drawing. Midas’s other incentive programs have included safety bingo, belt buckles, hats and a buffet lunch served by management.

One drawback, Swartz admits, is that people are often disappointed by losing a potential prize, but on the whole, most employees seem to like the incentive programs.

“It’s just an awareness thing,” explains Swartz. “We never dictated to any of the plants that they had to have specific programs, we just told them to develop programs along the way.”

Some safety experts believe incentive programs negatively impact the plant environment. “Incentive programs are awful,” says Stricoff. “They give people things of material value — money, televisions, Jeeps. When you base rewards on people not having injuries, it can drive injury reporting underground.”

Stricoff worries about the long-term effect of safety incentives programs.“Incentive programs have a strong negative influence on the safety culture,” he says. “What you are really telling people is that safety isn’t worth doing for its own sake, for the intrinsic value, but rather that you have to pay people to do it.”

In place of incentive programs, Stricoff suggests a behavioral approach toward safety in which, he says, “you focus on good leadership, but also give the employees a lot of responsibility for hazard recognition and for getting feedback from fellow employees about their safe working practices.”

Ideally, the end result of the behavioral approach is that employees help keep the workplace safe on their own accord. “You need to get employees to understand risk situations and be able to get them changed,” says Stricoff. “Then, employees play a significant role in the safety process by monitoring the environment around them.”

An intrinsic effort

Though safety experts disagree whether safety incentive programs are positive or if ergonomics standards are worthwhile, they do seem to agree that safety has to be intrinsic to the culture.

Communication is also a big issue for Shuput. “If you have employees who don’t really think that a plant cares for their well-being, their on-the-job safety, attitude and morale  are going to go down.”

In consulting companies, Shuput says, “I tell people to use basic human resource communication methods and apply them to safety methods.” He also says directors and managers must stress the importance of safety for safety’s sake, not simply because it’s required by regulations.

Involving your employees

The first thing a company should do is conduct a safety audit in which employees are polled about safety measures they think are necessary, according to Cullins.

“When employees are involved from the first step, they will be encouraged to follow in the later steps,” Cullins explains. “If you go in and say this is what we are going to do and you have to do it, you get a rebellious attitude.”

Implementing an ergonomics program is also important, he says. “The majority of workplace injuries are ergonomically related — cumulative trauma disorders, back injuries and others.”

Plant management needs to build a strong foundation of communication within the plant, says Shuput. It’s also important to establish  descriptive safety goals and objectives, and to involve employees in fulfilling them.

 “There is a desire not to have people get hurt,” Shuput says. “When push comes to shove, any manager or supervisor knows the worst thing that you have to do is call somebody’s wife or relative and tell them their loved one is hurt.”

Supervisors, managers, safety directors and safety consultants must work together with plants to ensure that their safety programs are stellar, equipment is functioning properly, ergonomics are taken care of and people are safe.

Ideally, each individual plant will develop a safety culture that suits its specific needs.  

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