How to Address Safety Concerns with Your Employer
Safety is top priority in today's climate. You might be faced with addressing your own safety concerns with your employer. If you’ve been given this responsibility, or if your company is truly supportive of safety efforts, then it’s easy. However, some employers might not react well to your suggestions or concerns.
So, what’s the best way to bring safety issues to your employer’s attention?
If the safety issue is an immediate danger to somebody’s life or well-being, then you need to act right away. First try to help the person exposed to the hazard. Deal with any potential consequences once they are safe. You don’t want to live with the death of a co-worker on your conscience.
However, let’s assume that we’re not in an immediately life-threatening situation. In that case, consider these suggestions for effectively addressing workplace hazards:
Follow the Chain of Command
Nothing is going to upset your boss more than you going over their head. Your immediate supervisor should be the very first person you address safety concerns with, even if you have a company safety director. Give them the opportunity to fix the problem. If you do approach them and their response is simply unsatisfactory, then you may need to seek help elsewhere.
In a union shop, this could mean addressing the concern with your shop steward. In either union or non-union situations, you could need to address the issue with your safety manager or director. A good safety manager will find a way to approach the situation without unnecessarily dragging your name into it. When an employee reports a safety issue to a safety manager, it is a good idea for that manager to go and do a walk-through of the area before contacting the supervisor. That way, when they contact the supervisor it is because they happened to be in the area and observed a safety violation, not because somebody went over the supervisor’s head.
Enlist an Ally
Some companies don’t have safety managers or shop stewards. In these situations, you need to ask yourself, “Are there people in my company with influence that are strong proponents of safety?” Perhaps you can bring the issue to their attention, once you’ve unsuccessfully attempted to work with your supervisor. Find a way to discreetly let them know what the problem is and hopefully they’ll be able to run with it from their end.
Present a Solution, Not a Complaint
One of my old bosses used to always say, “Don’t come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution.” He had an extremely open-door policy, but he didn’t want us just walking through his door to complain. He wanted to see that we’d thought about the problem we were experiencing and had a suggestion to fix it. Sometimes, we didn’t have suggestions and we would explain that, but what he was doing was showing us how to problem-solve. So, the next time you want to run to a supervisor to complain, first think about what it is you’re complaining about. Are co-workers tied-off to unsuitable anchor points? Maybe you can go in suggesting what a suitable anchor point might be or that railings may be a better option. Do your co-workers seem to not understand what is required of them from a safety perspective? Maybe you can go in and request a training class that would help everybody understand better.
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In line with going in and presenting a solution, your whole approach should be one of cooperation. If you go in making accusations and attacking management, you can expect negative results. Let your boss know that you wouldn’t be bringing something to his or her attention if it wasn’t important, but you put a lot of thought into it and are really concerned. Tell them what you believe to be wrong and give them a chance to explain. Offer any solutions you may have and let them know that you will help them in any way you can to make sure the situation is corrected as efficiently and as quickly as possible.
Do Your Research
Know what you are talking about, plain and simple. Don’t go and complain that the height of the railings is wrong if they’re not. Don’t complain that an anchor point is insufficient when it’s not. Do the research to back up your concern and have that backup in writing. If you find the information you need on OSHA.gov, print the page and bring it with you. Show your boss what it says in the standard, but be careful. There can be old information out there that has possibly been superseded by new regulations or letters of interpretation. Employees who are adept at navigating the internet have a world of information at their fingertips, but if you know a safety professional in the field, perhaps you can ask them for a little assistance to ensure that your information is up-to-date.
Know You are Protected
As an employee, you have rights. One of those rights is a workplace free of recognized hazards. Another is the right to voice concern for your safety without fear of retaliation – to your employer or to OSHA. In the worst-case scenario, where you have a safety hazard that your employer refuses to address or doesn’t address in a satisfactory manner, you have the right to contact OSHA directly and file a complaint. In fact, every employer is required to post the OSHA poster that specifically tells you how to do this.
Your employer cannot retaliate against you in any way for bringing up safety concerns. They cannot fire you. They cannot transfer you to a less desirable position as a result. They cannot reduce your pay. They cannot change your working conditions to make you uncomfortable or unhappy. If they do, OSHA has your back. Retaliation fines are steep. This is not a slap on the wrist. If a company is found guilty, the results are usually significant fines, full back-pay for the employee, and full reinstatement of the job. Granted, nobody wants to be out of work waiting for the system to process, but sometimes you have no choice.
Voicing safety concerns to your employer is not only a good idea, but it is imperative if you want your company to have an effective safety program. However, there are right and wrong ways to do things. In these situations, diplomacy is key. Follow the chain-of-command as long as it is effective. Be solution orientated and cooperative. Do your best not to hang anybody out to dry or throw anybody under the bus. Remember that the goal is your well-being and the well-being of your co-workers. Know that what you’re asking for is right. Once you know this, be insistent, be fearless, and you might just save somebody’s life.