Stop fighting fires

June 6, 2010
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There’s more to safety than checking fire extinguishers.


I see the safety and health industry recycling, recycling and recycling — not paper and cans, but programs and clichés.

Sure, you can find many mature, cutting-edge safety and health programs. But many organizations still live by their OSHA total recordable incidence rate, check fire extinguishers, and write tickets for no safety glasses.

Safety has come a long way, granted, but most programs have not advanced parallel to advances in productivity, technology, or equipment. Other business sectors such as production, marketing, maintenance reliability and sustainability have catapulted into the 21st century at break-neck speed. Safety still struggles with turn-of-the-century (20th century) dilemmas.

1— A chilling message

It still sends chills down my spine when I see banners and slogans proclaim “Safety is #1.” Anyone who believes this hasn’t lived in the real world of production, productivity ratios, deadlines and schedules.

Safety can be an integral part of every task we do, but to tell our people it’s number one and then turn around and declare, “I’m measuring your productivity ratios” sends a very mixed and confusing message. Time is money and when overtime is being paid, equipment being rented, and penalties issued for being late, safety can’t be first, it must be part of everything.

2— Unsafe habits at home

So why does this lip service about safety being number one continue?

We live in a multicultural world. I say this from the perspective of the culture that we say we’re trying to create each day at work. I’m speaking of a culture where the employee values safety and holds it among their highest concerns. This culture we aspire to have is not carried on once the five o’clock bell sounds. The same employees who we admonish to walk in a new “safety culture” at work most likely go home and practice a life largely devoid of any “safety culture” practices.

Take a survey of PPE on your neighborhood block, or even your own backyard for that matter. Weed eating is one of my favorites. The next time you see someone weed eating in your neighborhood take a “safety survey” and see how many wear hearing protection, safety glasses, face shields, and other protective equipment.

You may have some safety glasses in the garage because you’re reading this article. That fact inherently makes you more interested in safety and health than most. But it would probably be a safe assumption that most of our coworkers who aren’t a part of the “selling of the new culture” don’t have the needed PPE for use outside of nine-to-five work. They perform jobs around the house they wouldn’t think of doing at work without PPE.

They live in two different cultures.

Another of my favorite “multicultural experiences” involves music concerts and even “praise and worship” services. I’m just enough of a dork that I’ve taken my dosimeter into many of these type of functions and it will surprise you how often noise levels reach 110 dba or higher. And yes, I’m the goofball who has hearing protection on during the concert.

3— Overwhelming orientations

This “multiculturalism” starts before our employees ever come to work for our organizations. It starts with our education system. Few school systems around the country have any type of safety and health courses. The “safe way” to do things is self-learned at best and learned from getting hurt in many cases. Concepts such as analyzing the task for potential hazards before you start the project are not even on the radar.

We take these employees who have never had real safety training and throw them into the work force, typically bombarding them with a safety video library during a jam-packed, information-overload eight-hour safety orientation. This emphasis on safety and health is not presented as a way of life, rather as a snappy campaign slogan. The result: an employee who is not well grounded in safety as a value, a core competency, the very glue that holds their work environment together.

4— Lack of management education

Don’t think the only reason safety is progressing more slowly than other business sectors is because our employees are largely under-trained and have failed to buy in to safety and health as a core value. Our foreman, supervisors and other mid-managers are significantly behind the growth and maturity level of the rest of our organizations, at least from a safety perspective. This deficit represents the proverbial “weak link” in our safety culture.

Our mid-managers usually have had no more safety training than mentioned for employees, and most likely even less. Once an employee moves into middle management they are largely excluded or exempt from continuing their growth in the area of safety and health. This is further exacerbated with upper management. Most upper managers haven’t had any significant safety training in years. They aren’t familiar with what to look for from a safety prospective and consequently jump into the “check the fire extinguisher” mentality when in the work area.

5— Lack of discipline

Let’s not put the blame solely on employees, mid and upper managers. The structures of our organizations are not conducive to safety and health progress. In most organizations safety does not have the same level of management involvement that other business sectors have in place. For example, if we saw an organization with no VP of operations or chief financial officer, we would immediately think something was wrong. But when we see an organization where the highest safety officer is a mid-line manager we think nothing of it. Our organizations have not accepted safety and health as a core value in this respect. Managers fail to see that “safety” really includes risk management, workers’ compensation, industrial hygiene, transportation regulations, environmental regulations, human resources and enough other sectors of the organization’s “business” that it can no longer be ignored or slighted.

In most organizations there is a disconnect between policies, procedures, rules and regulations and the discipline associated with not complying with each. This does little more than reinforce the lack of commitment to safety as a core value. Discipline for the star producer, high achiever and favored manager who disregards safety is often lacking if not nonexistent. This frustrates the employees throughout the organization and reinforces the concept that we live in a safety multicultural work environment.

Before we can expect safety and health to make substantial strides in a cultural change, we must put the same emphasis on it that we put on other business sectors. A changed safety culture will only come through true acceptance that safety must be part of our very nature or core values and treated with the same importance as profitability. After all, those who truly understand safety and health understand very well that at the end of the day safety is a “profit center” for the organization.

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Recent Articles by Dan O'Brien, CSP

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