Workplace Safety Doesn't Happen by Accident
No matter the industry, workplace safety should be a top priority. Taking it for granted could endanger workers and clients, and cause serious regulatory and legal issues for business owners. A companywide approach to safety can help ensure a healthy and productive job environment.
Alarmingly, deaths in U.S. workplaces are rising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) Census of 2016 Fatal Occupational Injuries reports that 5,190 workplace fatalities occurred in 2016, a 7 percent jump from 2015. This is the third consecutive increase in annual workplace fatalities, and the first time since 2008 that the BLS has recorded more than 5,000 fatalities. The lethal injury rate increased to 3.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers from 3.4 in 2015, the highest rate since 2010.
Is your business doing everything it can to ensure a safe job environment?
June is National Safety Month, so there's no better time to start a workplace safety program. Donna Mandell, a Paychex safety expert with more than 30 years' experience, offers a professional take on workplace safety and describes how to establish an effective plan.
When it comes to workplace safety, size doesn't matter: Even if you have only one employee, OSHA applies to you.
Misconceptions about safety in the workplace
In consulting with hundreds of clients, Mandell finds six prevalent fallacies about workplace safety:
1. Playing the blame game.
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," Mandell says. "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."
2. Throwing money at a problem will make accidents 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," Mandell says.
3. 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 notes. "Workers react to that. They start cutting corners, and that's when accidents happen. Focusing completely on production is not a good thing. 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."
Safety is a team effort, going from the bottom up and the top down.
4. Assigning workplace safety to one person makes it happen.
Mandell emphasizes that safety is a team effort, going 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."
5. Thinking a safety manual makes your company compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Mandell cautions that "Just having a manual on the shelf doesn't do it. You need to have policies and procedures in place and passed along to employees so everyone understands what needs to be done."
6. Believing that your company is too small to need to comply with OSHA rules.
"Even if you have only one employee, OSHA applies to you," Mandell notes.
Ergonomics are part of workplace safety
Ergonomics — fitting a job to a person — is an important aspect of safety. OSHA notes that proper ergonomics "helps lessen muscle fatigue, increase productivity, and reduce 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 temperature.
Mandell notes that a company can implement many ergonomic fixes with close observation and minor adjustments. "Listen to employee complaints and act promptly rather than three months later," she counsels. "Maybe all you need to do is move a computer monitor, or change the position of a mouse or a desk. And the sooner you solve a problem, the less expense you'll have in the long run."
Common safety violations
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 potential hazards that chemical poses," Mandell says.
In healthcare 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.
"Employees must take certain precautions and wear protective gear when handling these substances. Written protocols must be in place," Mandell says.
Key safety considerations for businesses
Mandell asks clients to be proactive and establish a culture of workplace safety.
"Always keep the lines of communication open throughout the company. Communication is key," she emphasizes. "Managers, set the example for your employees. If you don't follow the rules, others won't follow them, either. Remind and encourage them, such as saying 'I see you have your safety glasses on today. That's wonderful. Keep it up!' Safety should be an expectation, not just another task."
She notes that establishing safety as a message makes it 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, Mandell adds.
She recommends getting all staff members committed to safety.
"The more people you get involved, 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 and show them how they can make their workplace safer. The more encouragement you give, the more buy-in you're going to get," Mandell says.
Launching a workplace safety program
To get a safety program started, Mandell advises companies to establish a four-part 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 smartphone," she says. "It's always good to have a second set of eyes."
Ensure that you document any safety hazards in writing, then prioritize the list and plan your actions, Mandell urges. Address the biggest hazards first. Keep in mind that a big hazard isn't necessarily a costly one. 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 a time frame. Your safety plan can proceed in small steps — it doesn't have to happen all at once.
"Once you've started, go back and assess whether the changes really work. Always verify that what you do makes an improvement," Mandell says. "Remember that cycle: assess, plan, do, and verify. Keep it going and sooner or later you can say, 'Hey, now it's all maintenance.'"
Do you know if your workplace is safe? Learn how to take steps now to prevent accidents later.