The Seven Essentials of Safety

By Jesse Brazzell, CHST
Manager Safety Services

sevenelementsThe concept of best practices is widely understood, and most organizations appreciate the value of such information. After all, if another company has identified the most efficient, most effective way to do something, it makes sense to apply their ideas to your own organization. Why would anyone waste time trying to reinvent the wheel?

The same idea holds true when it comes to developing safety programs. Whether your business is in manufacturing, construction, or any other industry, modeling your own safety efforts upon successful safety programs used by top companies will help you do a better job of meeting your objectives.

Our company has had the opportunity to help firms in many industries sharpen their own safety efforts. One thing we’ve noticed is that no matter what the industry, and no matter what the size or location of the organization, the most effective safety programs are built upon seven essential elements. In this article, we’ll examine each of those elements in detail.

1. It takes a program
Effective safety doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a random occurrence. Having a rule here and some protective equipment there is not going to deliver adequate physical protection for workers (or financial protection for their employers).

Protecting both employee and employer takes a comprehensive safety program that addresses every aspect of safety and every corner of the workplace. It must be documented in writing to ensure consistency in practice and over time.

Most of all, the plan must be implemented. That may seem obvious, but some organizations go to the time and trouble of developing a plan, only to let it sit unused on a shelf. You can put your plan in the best-looking three-ring binder you can find, but if you don’t put it into practice every day at every location in which you do business, it won’t do you any good.

Your safety program shouldn’t present an imaginary, ideal environment that can’t be achieved. It shouldn’t be a work of fiction. Instead, it should reflect your current safety activities, what you’re required to do to stay in compliance, and what your organization is realistically capable of accomplishing.

2. Train, train, and then train
Effective safety training is not a one-time thing. Combine human nature, the limits of anyone’s memory, and the overwhelming amount of information we all receive every day, and it’s no surprise that successful companies recognize the need to deliver information regularly.

The first step of training is the safety orientation for new hires – ideally, before they actually begin work. Before they’re put into a position where they are exposed to workplace hazards, they need to be familiar with your organization’s safety culture, an understanding of the hazards they may encounter, your rules regarding safety practices, and what to do when they encounter or observe an unsafe situation.

Keep in mind that new employees are already being overwhelmed with information. Take just as much time as you need to cover all of the orientation topics, and not one minute more. That increases the likelihood that employees will remember what’s most important. They can receive more specific, more detailed training as they need it.

The companies with the best safety practices tend to deliver task-specific training just before the workers are going to perform those tasks. Examples include training for forklift operation, proper fall protection, safe use of scaffolding, and procedures for aerial lifts.

Task-specific training is more effective and memorable when the trainer trains alongside the students, rather than lecturing them about the information. Demonstrating the proper procedures imprints the information in workers’ memories much more clearly than simply rattling off a list of steps and rules. Also keep in mind that most of the workers will have received previous training for the particular task or equipment, and may be inclined to tune the trainer out. Making training interactive and actively involving participants will keep daydreaming to a minimum.

Beyond task-specific knowledge, ongoing training may also include steps such as daily toolbox talks, monthly sessions focused on a particular area (or to meet compliance), and an annual safety refresher that reinforces the information delivered during the new hire orientation.

3. Built-in verification
How can you be certain that your training is effective and your workers are living up to your expectations? Your safety program should include a variety of informal and formal inspections and audits.

At the most basic level, supervisors should be required to make frequent, regular safety observations of the workers they oversee. In addition to monitoring employees for compliance with company safety standards, savvy supervisors will reward those who model best practices, thereby encouraging their co-workers to do the same.

Members of the management team should review safety practices and compliance with rules on at least a weekly basis, and more often if specific areas of concern are noted. When supervisors know that management is paying attention to safety practices, they’ll be far more likely to enforce those practices.

The best companies also include independent reviews of their overall programs. Whether that’s performed by an internal safety professional or an outside safety consultant, the objective is to verify that the review process is being followed.

4. Investigate when something falls short
No matter how well-thought-out a safety program may be, there will be times when actual performance falls short of standards or expectations. It may simply be a matter of workers failing to follow the correct procedures, or it may involve a serious injury.

When incidents occur, it’s important to investigate them. The reason for investigating is not to determine who to blame, but to identify what went wrong. Was there a deficiency in the procedure? Did employees receive insufficient training? Did an unanticipated situation arise?

In addition to pinpointing causes of incidents, the investigation process should provide suggestions for avoiding similar incidents in the future. Performing the investigation will also give the safety professional the opportunity to identify other potential problems.

5. Constructive discipline
“Discipline” is a word that often carries negative connotations, but it’s a very positive element of effective safety programs. Discipline is not all about punishment; it’s about ensuring compliance with the safety program and other rules, and offering corrective actions and consequences when necessary.

Companies that use the best safety practices employ discipline as a way to alter behavior and condition, rather than simply threatening someone’s employment status. The goal is to identify the incorrect behavior or action, and then retrain the employee so that he or she will act in the way the organization prefers.

To be effective, discipline must be consistent, and it must be consistently applied. Saving disciplinary actions for “major” noncompliance sends the message that smaller missteps will be ignored.

Supervisors must be aware of the workers’ perceptions about disciplinary consequences and enforcement. After all, employees pay attention to many details, so they’ll be aware of how their supervisors approach problems. Programs must also take workers’ schedules and workloads into consider when applying consequences.

6. Reward the right behavior
It’s every bit as important to call attention to good behavior as it is to point out when people fall short. In fact, because positive reinforcement tends to be more effective, having a rewards program is an essential element of a sound safety program.

Successful reward programs shouldn’t be complicated. Actually, the simpler the program, the easier it is to implement, and the more likely employees will show an interest in it. Make sure the objectives are understandable, and that employees understand the incentives from the very beginning.

Remember the time-honored advice to praise in public and discipline in private. When you publicly call attention to good practices, you enhance a worker’s pride in a job well done. You also reinforce the importance of following those practices among his or her co-workers. Even a little bit of friendly competition can help you improve compliance with your program.

7. Get it in writing
Do you have a great safety program? Prove it! The best way to offer evidence that your safety program is achieving your organization’s goals and meeting compliance is to document everything.

Having complete documentation will ensure that you meet OSHA’s requirements. Just as important, if your worksite is inspected by OSHA, the fact that you’ve carefully documented everything and can give it to the inspector may reduce the possibility of a more in-depth audit.

Another advantage of detailed documentation is that it encourages continued compliance with your organization’s safety program by serving as a visible reminder of what needs to be checked and recorded.

Ensuring that all seven of these elements are present doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a perfect safety plan, or that your organization won’t have to worry about incidents and injuries. However, the organizations that do address these elements tend to have cultures in which safety is considered to be very important. It’s no coincidence that they usually also have significantly lower-than-normal injury and illness rates, as well as lower experience modification rates. Clearly, the benefits outweigh any additional effort.

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