Survival usually wins over safety
May 24, 2011
Decision-making is an important part of a management system. In particular, making decisions that appropriately take into account the interests of stakeholders is emphasized in all management systems, including OHSAS 18001.
For a quality management system, the ultimate stakeholder is the customer. The primary focus of a QMS is customer satisfaction. After all, without satisfied customers, there is no business.
For an environmental management system, society-at-large is the stakeholder with laws and regulations establishing societal standards for what is considered adequate pollution prevention. Legal compliance is a required commitment within the organization’s environmental policy and a key focus of an EMS.
In both a QMS and EMS, there are independent stakeholders outside the organization that serve to counterbalance the internal interests of the organization.
For an OHSMS the situation is different. The primary stakeholders – workers who may suffer injury or ill health – are internal to the organization.
In the late 1980’s, I went to a presentation given by Carole Lander about a film she had just released. This film, Radium City, tells the story of young women hired to paint instrument dials in Ottawa, Illinois with paint containing radium. This paint was used so the markings on the dials would glow and be easy to read in the dark. As part of this task, workers were instructed to put the paint brushes in their mouths in order to ensure the quality of their work – the sharpness of the fine lines they were painting. As a result of this work practice, many workers developed radium poisoning and disfiguring cancers. If you have access to YouTube, you can watch some of the interviews from the film.
During her presentation, Ms. Lander recounted the results of her interview of a woman working with lead-containing materials in the Appalachians. She asked this worker why she was willing to continue to do this work even though she knew it was likely to make her ill and might even cause serious health impacts to her children.
Her answer: “You starves first.”
Organization often say they want workers to be active and engaged participants in safety, but workers often see workplace engagement as a fast road to unemployment. When workers are balancing financial survival vs. long-term safety – survival usually wins.