The new safety manager wanted to talk about our safety record. I was planning on a pleasant meeting. After all, our plant had reduced injuries by 200 percent over the past eight years. We were ranked in the top ten percent of local chemical plants when comparing our OSHA rate.

But when I sat down in his office, it was clear that he was concerned. We hadn't reduced injuries over the past four years. He was right. The programs we had put in place eight years ago had made significant reductions early on. But after we got down to an OSHA recordable rate of 1.0 to 1.5, we leveled off. What were we going to do, the safety manager asked, to make that next significant improvement in our OSHA rate?

Maybe you can relate to this story, and to our frustration. It's definitely a challenge to improve when your injury rates are already low, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that it can't be done. There will always be room for improvement in safety. Even at zero injuries there will be challenges to maintain that status.

Let's take a step back, and look first at some ways of bringing injury rates down to those challenging low levels. Then we'll address how to make continuing improvements. Companies experiencing high incidence rates (and I'll let you use your own criteria for deciding if your rates are high) are probably having problems in some basic areas. There are three steps you should take, involving these strategies:

1) Engineering controls

Preventing work-related fatalities and major injuries is usually accomplished through simple changes in conditions. You see these types of improvements around your own house. We have ground fault interrupter plugs by our sinks to prevent electrocutions. Fans have guards on the blades. Similar changes were made in many workplaces during the early 1900s. And we'll always have opportunities to improve conditions.

Again, let's use your home as an example. You go out and watch your son mowing the lawn. You see a rut in the yard that could cause him to trip, or maybe you notice that the guard on the discharge of the mower is broken. These conditions can be easily fixed to prevent future injuries.

We have the same type of condition-related problems at work. The sites with low injury rates have already addressed most of them, but identifying hazards and correcting them is an ongoing process. Still, many companies haven't attacked safety from this basic level.

2) Personal protective equipment

When personal protective equipment was first introduced to the workplace, I'm sure industry thought it had found the answer to injury prevention. Just imagine managers thinking, "That's it, we'll just protect employees with hard hats, goggles, face shields, coveralls, gloves, steel toe shoes and maybe even breathing air, and they can't get hurt."

This sounds good, but it doesn't work that way. Employees definitely need protection, but PPE should be viewed as the last defense against injury.

For example, I once saw an employee preparing a piece of piping for repair. He washed it out, drained and tagged the pipe. The maintenance man who did the repairs neglected to wear a chemical splash suit as required. Sure enough, chemicals sprayed on him. Employees believed his injury was caused by the failure to wear PPE. I asked them to look a little deeper. If the piping was washed and isolated correctly there would have been no injury. The PPE should have been worn, but only as a safeguard.

Utilizing PPE in conjunction with efforts to correct conditions that put employees at risk can make big improvements.

3) Employee involvement

The ways you can use employees to improve safety is unlimited in scope. Sometimes with conditions and PPE there is only so much that you can do. But there are many creative ways for you to use employee involvement to continually reduce injuries.

Employees have always known that they have an impact on their own personal safety, but for years they were never asked to contribute to the general safety of the company. When employees are made to feel that their input is valuable, they can be an excellent resource to improve overall safety.

Behavioral safety (observing critical behaviors and giving immediate feedback) is a prime example of employee involvement. Not only does it include a cross-section of employees, but their participation is essential to the success of the process. Without employee involvement behavioral safety cannot exist.

What's next?

OK, so you've implemented these basic strategies and continue to work on them. Now what? Here's what I've seen work for companies that have broken through a performance plateau to reduce injuries even further:

  • Use an assortment of safety tools. Don't depend on one resource such as hazard recognition or behavioral safety. Give the employees a number of resources.
  • Make sure that every safety tool you offer gives employees the opportunity to be involved.
  • Analyze all of your injuries, including near-miss incidents. Identifying the cause of past injuries is a valuable tool to prevent future incidents.
  • Have an ongoing system in place to identify workplace hazards.
  • Have employees assess their jobs for risks before starting to work. You want them to take time out for safety.

As you can see, there isn't one magic tool that will reduce injuries. You have to incorporate a number of initiatives. The five items listed here can move your company along in the right direction.

By Bob Brown. Bob is owner of the consulting firm, Blue Collar Safety, and can be reached at (281) 480-1076.

Sidebar -

Time Out Here is a typical "safety pause" list for employees to review before starting a job:

What hazards are involved with this task?

Is there a chance of an injury?

Are all energy sources controlled and procedures being followed?

Am I wearing the correct personal protective equipment?

Do I need help to do this task safely?

What safe behaviors would prevent an incident from occurring?