"No one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood, because a nation built on the dignity of work must provide safe working conditions for its people."

 — Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Establishing a safe and healthful working environment requires every employer — large and small — and every worker to make safety and health a top priority. The entire work force — from the chief executive officer to the most recent hire — must recognize that worker safety and health is central to the mission and key to the profitability of their company.  

By working together with a valued and trusted safety partner, employers are looking to reduce injuries, stay compliant, manage risks and increase productivity. In this article, we review how to accomplish these goals through the traditional lines of safety defenses and a strong safety culture.

By the numbers

First, let’s look at the challenge. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries preliminary data, 4,405 workers were killed on the job in 2013 (3.2 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) — on average, 85 a week, or more than 12 deaths every day. Out of 3,929 worker fatalities in private industry in calendar year 2013, 796 or 20.3% were in construction — that is, one in five worker deaths last year.

In addition, slightly more than three million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses were reported by private industry employers in 2013, resulting in an incidence rate of 3.3 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers, according to estimates released by the BLS on December 4, 2014.Meanwhile, the total recordable cases (TRC) incidence rate of injury and illness reported by private industry employers declined in 2013, as did the rate for cases of a more serious nature involving days away from work, job transfer, or restriction — commonly referred to as DART— marking the first decline in the DART rate since 2009.

The true cost of work-related injuries and deaths is much greater than the cost of workers’ compensation insurance alone. According to the National Safety Council (NSC) in 2012, the total cost of injuries was $198.2 billion. This included wage and productivity losses, medical costs, administrative expenses, uninsured costs and the cost of time required to investigate injuries, write up reports, etc., according to National Safety Council Injury Facts® 2014 Edition.

Safety focus

While this data paints a picture of current state, we know that incidents are preventable and zero harm is achievable.  Our customers think about and manage their safety programs in two main categories — people safety and facility safety. 

People safety is about sending employees home the same way they arrived. Facility safety is about minimizing the hazards that are within a facility. 

People safety solutions are designed to help keep your employees safe and healthy from head to toe and include products, services and resources aligned to the following:

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Medical and first aid
  • Temperature stress hazards
  • Ergonomics
  • Occupational health hazards

Facility safety solutions are designed to help businesses maintain and operate facilities and worksites safely. Key solutions include products, services and resources aligned to:

  • Electrical safety
  • Confined space
  • Signs and communications
  • Slips, trips and falls
  • Lockout/Tagout (LOTO)
  • Environmental safety hazards
  • Exits and fire protection
  • Machine guarding
  • Security

Rethinking the three lines of defense

Often, personal protective equipment (PPE) is thought of as the primary means to protect employees. PPE is an important and practical defense against workplace hazards, but OSHA considers PPE the last line of defense.  Engineering controls and work practice controls/administrative controls – methods that are used to eliminate or reduce a hazard – must always be considered first when evaluating and mitigating hazards. 

Engineering controls —First line of defense

The first and best strategy is to control hazards at the source and engineering controls do just that. The basic concept behind engineering controls is that, to the extent feasible, the work environment and the job itself should be designed to eliminate hazards or reduce exposure to hazards. Methods used to engineer out hazards are generally grouped into three main categories – substitution, isolation and ventilation. 

If feasible, the facility, equipment, or process should be designed to remove the hazard or substitute something that is not hazardous.  If removal is not feasible, then the hazard should be isolated/enclosed to prevent exposure in normal operations. Where complete enclosure is not feasible, then local ventilation to reduce exposure to the hazard in normal operations is suggested.

Work practice controls /Administrative controls — Second line of defense

Work practices include general workplace rules and other operation-specific rules. Fundamental work practices include good housekeeping, personal hygiene practices, periodic inspection and maintenance of process and control equipment, and use of proper procedures to perform a task. Administrative controls influence the way a task is performed and these generally involve the scheduling of the work or the worker. 

PPE — Last line of defense

Only when exposure to hazards cannot be engineered completely out, and when safe work practices and other forms of administrative controls cannot provide sufficient additional protection, a supplementary method of control is the use of PPE. PPE may also be appropriate for controlling hazards while engineering and work practice controls are being installed or in emergency response situations.

Developing a strong safety culture

Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes. The atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., shape behavior. 

In a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond “the call of duty” to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors, and intervene to correct them. 

Creating a safety culture takes time. A company at the beginning of the road may exhibit a level of safety awareness, consisting of safety posters and warning signs. As more time and commitment are devoted, a company will begin to address physical hazards and may develop safety recognition programs, create safety committees, start incentive programs, hire a safety director, provide resources for accident investigations and safety training. Further progress toward a true safety culture uses accountability systems. These systems establish safety goals, measure safety activities, and charge costs back to the units that incur them.

To overcome the challenges of limited resources, staffing, budgets and time for safety, and to develop an ongoing safety culture, businesses want to build strong working relationship with a valued and trusted safety partner. This relationship is based upon understanding the challenges faced, anticipating the needs, forging a personal connection of trust and offering products, services and resources tailored to specific needs. Forging a personal connection of comfort and trust is something that is earned in partnerships and cannot be rushed.  Once trust is earned, a more mutual respect is established.