An Obligation for Safety

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by Carl Potter, CSP and Deb Potter, PhD

What is the Obligation?

While pursuing profits, organizations have an obligation to ensure employees are not injured. Likewise, employees are obligated to do everything they can to ensure they don't get hurt, create a work environment where others don't get hurt and participate in the safety process. The opposite of these actions is to be part of the problem. There is no middle ground-you are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. Management consultant Price Pritchett said, "The factory of the future will have two employees, a security guard and a watch dog. The guard is there to feed and water the dog, and the dog is there to bite the guard if he tries to touch the machines." Workplaces are full of inherent injury risks, but the intention is that apparent risks have a consequent mitigation.

The Logical Path to Mitigation

For an employer to mitigate risks, hazards must first be recognized. Although that sounds simple, decades of experience clearly demonstrate that people see what they want to see. In high-risk industries, this applies to both employees and employers. In a plant walk-through prior to conducting work, it is sometimes apparent that employees, supervisors, managers and owners tend to overlook obvious hazards that can cause serious injury.

"Wow! How did we miss that on our inspections?" is a common statement during the walk-throughs. Interestingly, this type of individual will walk by without correcting or guarding the hazard. It is not unusual to find that this person has a high expectation for employees and supervisors to make a demonstrated commitment to safety. Before we get too far in the walk-through, the question becomes, "So why are you leaving this in the same condition?" There is a gap between observation and mitigation that we must overcome.

To handle the day in and day out hazards in the workplace, the organization must have a process much like the one the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) uses after an inspection to ensure cited (unsafe) conditions are addressed within a set amount of time. This process must be one where every recognized workplace hazard is corrected and documented. In addition, the safety management process (SMP) should include a root cause analysis to determine the source of the hazard. In the best SMP, there will be a constant mechanism for improving the situation. OSHA supports this type of process through American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z10 and the Voluntary Protection Program. One of the key process factors is to conduct a formal hazard assessment (FHA).

Making the Effort to Identify

Here's why such a specific, validated hazard assessment is an essential part of a SMP. Imagine building a fence around your entire plant. Whether you work in a service industry, laboratory or for a manufacturer, the fence (even if it is imaginary) defines the boundary or scope of where to look for hazards. Once the assessment is completed, you can begin a systematic process to evaluate the identified hazards for the risk level and in turn make conscious decisions to mitigate the risk. The challenge is that many employees, supervisors, managers and owners do not see the hazards. Conducting a proper FHA involves a significant number of people to reduce the chances of missing hazards. The good news is that it is a black and white assessment or one might say, "The hazard exists, or it doesn't." Contrary to a perception survey, this type of survey is not a cause for alarm by employees; they become the information providers about the job hazards they face.

The Result: Injury Prevention

The important concept to consider with the FHA is that you now have specific information to use in preventing hazards from causing injuries in your workplace. In addition, when OSHA knocks on your door, you will impress them with your process. Because of inherent workplace risks, targeting zero injuries is a tough job. Nevertheless, if organizations continue to just throw "safety stuff" at a perceived problem, they will never know how to prevent injuries. Each organization must be committed to having a SMP that seeks to be specific in identifying inherent workplace hazards as well as those that pop up daily-so everyone can go home without injury.


About the authors: Carl Potter is a board-certified safety professional (CSP) and a certified management consultant (CMC). He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and corporate safety-focused events. Carl can be contacted at carl@potterandassociates.com. Deb Potter, PhD, is a CMC and specializes in safety management for high-industry. She works with leaders at all levels of organizations to develop zero-injury cultures. Deb can be contacted at deb@potterandassociates.com.

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