Going to work shouldn't jeopardize employees' health and welfare. Yet taking workplace safety for granted could result in serious regulatory and legal issues for business owners. Every business has hazards, regardless of its setting and purpose, but taking a companywide approach to safety can help ensure a healthy job environment. In this interview, Donna Mandell, a Paychex safety expert with more than 30 years' experience, talks about workplace safety and how to establish an effective program.
Q: What are common misconceptions about safety in the workplace?
DM: I can think of six. First, people cause accidents, and then they [the people involved] tend to play the blame game: "It's all your fault," "You didn't do this right." It's surprising to take this line when, in fact, many factors may lie behind an accident. Perhaps something wasn't set up right or procedures weren't clear enough. When an accident happens you have to look into all reasons and come up with corrective action.
Second, people sometimes think that if you spend a lot of money, accidents will go away. But that's not always the case. Sometimes just a simple, inexpensive fix can resolve an issue, such as lighting a dark stairwell.
A third misconception is that talking about safety is the same as making it happen. Bosses may say "Safety is No. 1 ... but get the work done." That's an oxymoron. 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, just do it." Workers react to that. They start cutting corners, and that's when accidents happen. Focusing completely on production is not a good thing to do. Everyone should expect to go to work with 10 fingers and 10 toes and return home with the same number at the end of the day.
Fourth, it's wrong to believe that assigning workplace safety to one person makes it happen. Safety is a team effort—it goes from the bottom up and the top down. Everyone needs to be involved; everyone has to have the same mindset and a common goal for a safety program. Management needs to drive procedures and policies, and everyone on the floor participates by giving feedback: "This is working," "This is not working," "I have a better way do this that could save money or prevent a severe injury." Communication is key.
The fifth misconception is thinking that a safety manual makes your company compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Just having a manual on the shelf doesn't do it—compliance is a fallacy. You need to have policies and procedures in place and passed along to employees so everyone understands what needs to be done.
The sixth misconception is thinking, "I only have a couple of employees, so OSHA compliance rules don't pertain to me." Even if you have one employee in your company, OSHA applies there, too.
Q: How do ergonomics play into workplace safety?
DM: Ergonomics—fitting a job to a person—is an important aspect of safety. OSHA notes that proper ergonomics "helps lessen muscle fatigue, increases productivity, and reduces the number and severity of work-related musculoskeletal disorders." 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 motion, etc. OSHA has many programs to help position people at their jobs to reduce the risk of injury, even including improper lighting and improper temperature.
Many ergonomic fixes can be implemented by simple observations and minor adjustments. Listen to employee complaints and act promptly rather than three months later. Maybe all you need to do is move a computer monitor, change the position of a mouse, or the position of a desk. And the sooner you solve a problem, the less expense you'll have in the long run.
Q: What safety violations do you see most often?
DM: I see safety 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 potential hazards that chemical poses.
For healthcare workplaces—such as medical offices, dental offices, ambulances—blood-borne pathogens are a major concern. These are microorganisms, such as hepatitis C and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, which can be transmitted in human blood and body fluids. Employees must take certain precautions and wear protective gear when handling these substances. Written protocols must be in place.
Q: What is the best safety advice you can give a business?
DM: I tell clients that, yes, you must do some things up front to establish a culture of workplace safety. Always keep the lines of communication open throughout the company. Communication is key. Managers, set the example for your employees. If you don't follow the rules, others won't follow them, either. Don't just spank people when they do something wrong. Remind and encourage them: "Gee, I see you have your safety glasses on today. That's wonderful. Keep it up!" Safety should be an expectation, not just another task.
Once safety as a message is out there, it becomes second nature. Wearing safety glasses, wearing gloves, putting certain equipment in place for a particular task—these behaviors get integrated into the daily work process.
The more people you get involved in safety, the better. Always start with a small group. Find the people who are excited about safety—those are the ones you want on board. Train them, show them how they can make their workplace safer. The more encouragement you give, the more buy-in you're going to get.
Q: What can a business do to launch a workplace safety program?
DM: Establish a cycle: assess, plan, do, and verify. You have to know where you are to know where you want to go. First, assess your workplace for potential hazards. Paychex can help you with checklists, site visits, and even a virtual walk-around by viewing your workplace with a hook-up to a tablet computer or smart phone. It's always good to have a second set of eyes.
Document any safety hazards in writing, then prioritize the list and plan your actions. Address the biggest hazards first. Keep in mind that a big hazard isn't necessarily a costly hazard. You may simply need to move something from one place to another or make an adjustment. Consider assembling a group to discuss safety training for employees and supervisors.
Then draw up a plan of action and establish a time frame. It doesn't all need to be done tomorrow: you can take it in baby steps. Then once you've started, you want to check back and learn whether the changes really work. Always verify that what you do makes an improvement.
Remember that cycle: assess, plan, do, and verify. Keep it going and sooner or later you can say, "Hey, now it's all maintenance."