No matter the industry, workplace safety should be a top priority. Taking it for granted endangers workers and can cause serious regulatory and legal issues for business owners. A companywide approach to safety can help ensure a healthy and productive job environment.
Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) Census of 2016 Fatal Occupational Injuries reports workplace fatalities were down slightly in 2017 at 5,147 incidents, even a single injury can be one too many for an employer.
Is your business doing everything it can to ensure a safe job environment? Not only do your workers trust you to provide a safe work environment but doing so makes good fiscal and ethical business sense.
Workplace safety starts here
For many, safety in the workplace sounds like an onerous and cumbersome topic. While some components are complex, there are simple things you can do to immediately begin protecting your workers and yourself. This includes:
- Understanding the correlation between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and workers' compensation.
- Clarifying common misconceptions about workplace safety.
- Preventing common workplace accidents.
- Implementing or improving your workplace safety program.
OSHA and workers' compensation: Safety is the bottom line
OSHA is responsible for overseeing safety at the workplace. Consequently, following the OSHA's guidelines is a proven way a business can contribute to the positive trend of reducing overall workplace injuries and reap the associated benefits. It's a straightforward correlation: a safe work environment equates to lower claims. Insurance companies that offer workers' compensation can provide better pricing to a business with a history of fewer claims.
Common misconceptions about safety in the workplace
When it comes to safety in the workplace, myths do persist. Donna Mandell, a Paychex safety expert with more than 30 years' experience, has consulted with hundreds of clients. She shares six fallacies about workplace safety:
- Blaming others. People are part of an accident then tend to blame someone. Accusations, "It's all your fault," "You didn't do this right," are commonly heard. "In fact, many factors may lie behind an accident. Perhaps something wasn't set up right or procedures weren't clear enough. You have to look into all reasons and come up with a corrective action," Mandell says.
- Throwing money at a problem will make accidents go away. "Sometimes just a simple, inexpensive fix can resolve an issue, such as lighting a dark stairwell," Mandell explains. Other simple fixes may include adjusting a computer monitor or keyboards for better ergonomics or even enforcing safety protocols that are currently in place such as washing hands properly or wearing safety devices. In other words, preventing accidents does not have to be expensive.
- Talking about safety is the same as making it happen. "Companies often say they believe in safety and talk a lot about safety but when production is involved, then it's 'I don't care what you have to do to get the job done,'" Mandell says. "Workers react to that. They start cutting corners and that's when accidents happen." When a company's actions do not align with their verbal commitments, it erodes employees' trust in the company, which negatively affects the work environment. Employees should expect to go to work and come home at the end of the day without injury.
- Assigning responsibility to one person makes safety in the workplace happen. It helps to have a designated safety manager but workplace safety is a team effort from the bottom up and the top down. "Everyone needs to be involved with the same mindset and common goal of safety. Management needs to drive procedures and policies, and everyone on the floor participates with feedback. Communication is key," Mandell emphasizes.
- Thinking that having a safety manual makes your company OSHA compliant. Having a manual on the shelf does nothing. Mandell warns that you need to actually have policies and procedures in place and effectively communication these procedures to employees, so everyone understands what needs to be done.
- Believing that your company is too small to need to comply with OSHA rules. It's true that some small business may be exempt from workers' compensation responsibilities, but don't confuse OSHA with workers' compensation. Mandell says emphatically: "Even if you have only one employee, OSHA applies to you."
Common safety violations
Fall protection, hazard communication, and respiratory protection represented a few of the top OSHA violations reported in 2018.
As an experienced safety expert, Mandell says she sees violations most commonly in communications about hazardous materials: chemicals and blood-borne pathogens.
"We're talking about the right-to-know law. Even if you have only one chemical at your worksite, everyone has the right to know about the potential hazards that chemical poses," Mandell says.
In health care workplaces — such as medical offices, dental offices, and ambulances — blood-borne pathogens pose a major concern. Microorganisms, such as hepatitis C and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, can be transmitted in human blood and body fluids.
Often overlooked, poor ergonomics can also pose risk of injury. Ergonomics applies to those sitting at a desk all day, working on an assembly line, standing in certain positions, reaching in awkward positions, doing any kind of forceful or repetitive motion.
According to Mandell, a company can implement many ergonomic fixes with close observation and minor adjustments. It's important to listen to employee complaints and act promptly, rather than push the problem down the road. The sooner an employer solves a problem the fewer expenses will be incurred in the long run.
Safe practices in the workplace
Keeping yourself and your employees safe in the workplace begins by establishing a proactive culture of safety. But what does that mean exactly?
For starters, beware of complacency. Everyone, especially managers, should lead by example. This means following safety rules and protocols with a positive, upbeat attitude. Wearing safety glasses or other protective gear, washing hands properly, replacing dead light bulbs, taking appropriate precautions with equipment, keeping first-aid kits stocked, communicating concerns — all should be an expectation, not just another time-consuming task. More than that, these behaviors should get integrated into the daily work process. Relaxed attitudes and enforcement that deviate from the safety process lowers awareness, which leads to injuries.
Beyond avoiding complacency, safety guidelines must be clear and backed with ongoing support. Written protocols must be in place, understood by everyone, and examined and updated regularly. Communication channels between staff members should be open, encouraged and respected across the company. With communication comes engagement. Help and encourage your employees to feel involved in safety protocols. This includes having them attend meetings on safety issues, monitoring for compliance, and seeking their input for improvements.
Launching a workplace safety program
If you don't have a workplace safety program, the time to launch one is immediately. Mandell advises establishing a four-part cycle: assess, plan, do, and verify.
There are several resources you can turn to help get your efforts underway. OSHA offers sample safety and health programs for specific jurisdictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another source of information with its four-step workplace health model based on your company's size, sector, capacity, and geography.
If you lack the resources to build a safety program overseen by an internal manager, consider outsourcing. The upfront investment is worth it. You gain invaluable help with compliance (and avoiding associated fines), stabilizing workers' compensation costs, maintaining productivity, reducing turnover, and improving employee morale. Highly trained safety representatives can help you assess your risk exposure and address your risk directly.