10 Steps to Building a Safe Work Environment

10 Steps to Building a Safe Work Environment

As with most professions, Safety professionals often come into the field in positions where their responsibility is to focus on the day-to-day tasks of a jobsite or facility.  The “big picture” is left to somebody else, whether it’s the Corporate Safety Director or some other member of a company’s management.  Eventually, however, many Safety professionals will rise to the next level.  They will be expected to make not just a single work site safe, but an entire organization.  If those professionals that find themselves in this situation have not had the proper training or experience to know how to focus on a broader spectrum of issues, they could be doomed for failure. 

So, what should be the focus of a Safety professional trying to build a safe work environment?  There are, of course, many answers to this question, but here are ten very important things to help make your program a successful one:

1. Management Commitment

A safety program without management commitment is like a town ordinance that doesn’t have support of the local authorities – it lacks teeth and will most likely never be enforced.  As a Safety professional tasked with developing an organization’s program, you need to immediately gauge the support you have at every level of management.  If the top brass doesn’t have your back, you’d better believe that line supervisors won’t either.  If the company’s executives do support you, it’s a good idea to ask them to make an announcement – whether at a company meeting, through individual meetings with members of management, or even through an official memo – that they support the safety program and expect full cooperation.  If they don’t, you’ve got a hard sell and you need to figure out fast how to get them on-board.  If they’re not in it for the good of their employees, then getting them to understand how a solid safety program will save them money can often bring about an epiphany.

2. Employee Buy-In and Involvement

Sure, some people like to come to work, be told what to do, do their job, and go home.  But, the vast majority of people are more likely to adhere to rules they feel they’ve played a part in.  This doesn’t mean you need to ask every member of the labor force to write a part of the safety plan, but it does mean you should let them know how important they are in the plan’s development.  Let’s face it; nobody knows a machine more thoroughly than the guy who has been operating it for 25 years.  He knows its quirks, he knows its temperament.  He knows the right way to use it, but you’ll also find he knows the wrong way to use it.  This is helpful information when building safety controls and it makes that operator understand his knowledge is valued.  Other ways to get employees involved are suggestion boxes and the all-important Safety Committee.  Some companies make a huge mistake by including only members of the Safety department and management on this committee, leaving vast amounts of untapped knowledge and experience on the plant floor. 

3. Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Some facilities feel that drug and alcohol abuse is a personal issue and, if they just turn a blind eye to it, it will go away.  Worse yet, I’ve seen some contractors with an office refrigerator full of beer – sending the message that drinking on the job is not only okay, but perhaps encouraged.  This is an accident waiting to happen.  Drug and Alcohol abuse needs to be nipped in the bud through a clearly stated policy which is consistently enforced.  Unless you’re looking for a lawsuit, if you test Joe when he goes to the medical clinic, you’d better also test Mike. 

There are four main ways to test for drug and alcohol abuse:  pre-employment, random, post-accident, and reasonable suspicion.  Again, once you make your policy, it must be adhered to for everyone.  I worked with one contractor who would test their employees, but refused to take action against a laborer who was “shotgunning” beer in the parking lot at lunch because he could “really hump the concrete hose”.  Not only were they toying with getting somebody seriously hurt, they were opening themselves up to a discrimination lawsuit from any of the men who had been tested.  Random testing must be run very specifically in order to avoid discrimination or harassment charges as well.  If you choose to pursue random testing, there are organizations out there that will run the program for you to avoid any chance of somebody claiming you’re singling them out.  Finally, for “for-cause” or “reasonable suspicion” testing, it is important that you have supervisory personnel trained in Substance Abuse Recognition.  If possible, and again to protect yourself and your company, before sending somebody for testing, try to have two trained supervisors independently conclude that the employee is suspected of being under the influence.

4. Training

You simply can’t expect an employee to work safely if he or she has never been trained in the proper safe working procedures.  What may seem like common sense to you, may be the farthest thing from common sense to another.  Your common sense comes from a set of experiences and learned behaviors which are completely different than the experiences and learned behaviors of the next guy.  If he has spent 25 years walking the steel without fall protection and has never had an incident or seen one, it is likely that his common sense says it’s okay to walk the steel without fall protection.  You and I, as safety professionals, know this to be untrue and maybe, because of our education and experience, feel it should be common sense.  In building a safe work environment, you need to determine what areas require training both by regulatory requirement and by your own hazard assessment.  In my experience, when OSHA comes to a jobsite for an inspection, one of the first questions they will ask is, “Where is the training documentation?”

5. Plan

No safety program has ever been successful by winging it.  Some get lucky for a while, but those that leave safety to chance will always have incidents.  There are many levels of planning:  having a written corporate plan, a site-specific plan where necessary, being involved in pre-construction meetings, being a part of daily pre-work meetings, performing JHAs (Job Hazard Analyses) or other hazard assessments.  Let’s be honest, what would happen if a roofing crew had not planned for their job?  They showed up to their work area, got their materials up the hoist, got set up, and realized they had no means of fall protection.  Would they stop, come back down off the roof, and get what they need?  In a perfect world, yes, but in reality, most likely they would not.  Instead, they would continue with the work completely unprotected. 

If you can get supervisors to understand how much better it is to plan ahead than it is to have you stop work, you’ve made progress.  Don’t be shut out of pre-construction meetings.  This is a great opportunity to find out how the steel erector plans to achieve fall protection and how they plan on maintaining it as the project goes on, for example.  Morning meetings might give you an opportunity to find out that a certain business unit plans to have one of the employees operating a machine that is supposed to be tagged out of service.  Be involved early and often.

6. Communicate

What good is a plan if nobody knows what it is?  If you expect people to work the way you want them to work, you need to let them know just what that way is.  A good Safety professional is a good coach.  Don’t berate employees, teach them what it is they are doing wrong and how to do it properly.  Be available and let them know that communication is a two-way street.  Make sure they understand that you are always approachable for questions, suggestions, or concerns (but that you also encourage them to use the proper chain of command – you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by making supervisors feel you are stepping on their toes).  Have a weekly meeting – often called “Toolbox Talks” in the construction industry, but make it relevant.  You don’t want to talk to your forklift operators about excavations, they’ll just tune you out.  Cover topics the employees need to know about and use that time to survey the workforce about how things are going.  And, don’t forget to communicate up the ladder.  Nothing can come back to bite you more than an executive being blindsided by something important.  If there is an injury or an OSHA inspection, make sure they know.

7. Incentive

Incentive has almost become a dirty word in the world of OSHA, primarily because poorly constructed programs often encourage workers to hide injuries.  This not only means that a worker might not receive the necessary medical care his or her company’s worker’s comp policy should be paying for, it also skews statistics.  Therefore, if you decide to go forward with a formal incentive program, you should take care to construct it in a way that does not encourage – and perhaps punishes – failure to report an injury.

However, incentive comes in many forms.  The most powerful incentive for an employee should be their own health and well-being.  Make them understand that safety is part of their job, not just an optional aspect for which they should be rewarded if they perform well.  Do they get rewarded for showing up to work on time and dressing appropriately?  Do they get rewarded for performing assigned tasks?  Sure, it’s called their paycheck.  Make them understand this, because it is important in how the workforce perceives safety.  Then, when you decide to throw them a pizza party or buy them jackets (it’s amazing how far a little food or clothing go toward garnering goodwill with your workforce), it’s just icing on the cake.

One very effective way I’ve found to get guys to work safely is to talk to them.  When I’m on a worksite, I know the names of the people.  I ask how their weekend was.  I learn about them.  If Tony has a prized dog, I ask how that dog is doing.  If Sara is in a bowling league on Tuesday, on Wednesday I ask her how she bowled.  When you establish this type of relationship with workers, it helps them to understand that while safety is your job, you genuinely care about them.  This is often enough to give them incentive to cooperate with you.

8. Discipline

When all else fails – and, at times, it will – you must have a disciplinary policy in place.  It’s not something anybody likes to do, but you will occasionally come across blatant violators and repeat offenders that do not respond well to coaching or incentives.  If you’ve done all we’ve previously discussed to this point to no avail, you are left with little choice but to discipline them.  The policy should be clear and consistent.  Document everything.  Make it progressive – verbal warning, written warning, suspension, termination.  You will, however, want to leave yourself some wiggle-room in the plan.  Use of the words “up to and including” (as in, …”a third violation will result in disciplinary action up to and including suspension”) gives you the ability to decide that maybe a third violation of your 100% safety glasses policy is not as serious as someone failing to follow proper hot-work procedures for the third time.  You also want to leave yourself room for swift, immediate action on more dangerous violations.  Some facilities have “zero tolerance” policies for such things as failure to utilize fall protection, failure to observe proper lockout/tagout procedures, or failure to follow proper confined space procedures, because of the nature of incidents that can result from them.  The odds are the severity of one of these incidents would be high. 

Whatever you decide, your line supervision needs to be supporting the program and enforcing it.  Remember, you are not the Safety Police.  You cannot be everywhere at once, especially if supervision is letting unsafe behavior occur when you turn your back.  You should develop the plan and make sure they are enforcing it with your support.

Finally, one of the most important pieces of advice I ever got was: praise in public and punish in private.  Remember that the people working for the company are adults.  They should not be belittled or berated at any time.  When you are disciplining them, bring them to your office or some other private area to do so.  When you are praising them, say it out loud in front of everybody. 

9. Housekeeping

Once you’ve gotten things up and running, you need to maintain the program.  The workforce has been trained, management is on-board, the employees are involved, but the workplace is a mess.  Is this really an issue?  Well, let’s look at the vast array of problems that could occur from poor housekeeping:  fire hazards, environmental hazards, slip, trip, and fall hazards, lacerations, puncture wounds, impalement hazards, etc. etc.   It’s not all about making it look nice (though that certainly helps – if a compliance officer comes in to do an inspection, they certainly get an immediate impression of a facility and can set the tone of the inspection based on the facility’s housekeeping).  Have people assigned to clean up work areas, rotate this responsibility through the workforce, and make sure they understand why it is important to clean up after themselves.  Plus, it’s nice to have a sense of pride in your workplace.

10. Avoid Complacency

Sometimes you do such a good job setting up your program that it runs smoothly for long periods of time.  While this is a great accomplishment, it can also be a deadly trap.  Employees who do the same thing day in and day out, who haven’t had any safety issues along the way, can tend to grow complacent.  They go into auto-pilot mode.   Have you ever gotten into your car to drive to work and next thing you know you’re halfway there but you can’t remember a single moment of your drive?  That’s your brain on auto-pilot.  Scary when you think that you drove miles and miles without a single recollection.  In the same vein, a worker can operate a machine for hours without once thinking about what he or she is doing.  That allows for them to slip up because their mind has wandered or, worse yet, they can become so comfortable with what they do that they feel they can develop shortcuts that are not necessarily safe.  Task rotation is a good way to avoid this, but simply consistently talking to the workforce about not being complacent helps bring it to the forefront.  Keep an eye out for it.  Encourage the workforce to look out for complacency in one another by making sure they understand that they can also be harmed by a fellow employee not paying attention. 

A safe work environment is one where there is a strong safety culture.  A machine is only as unsafe as the person operating it.  To try to start building a safe work environment by focusing on one technical area or another would be like swimming upstream.  Instead, focus on these ten broader areas.  Getting them under control will make the rest of your job much easier.

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