Attuned to the Language of Business

Focusing on organizational safety reliability can prevent accidents.

A large construction company was building a multi-story office building in St. Louis. Partway through the job, a worker fell more than 30 feet through a hole in a partially decked floor. He died as a result of severe injuries a few hours later. We at the local OSHA office heard about the accident on the news and were ready for the call from the subcontractor, a company well known to our office.

The company's safety director grimly reported the death to us, with sincere regret. It was not the first fatal fall this company had reported in the past year, and there had been others in previous years, as well. A long "history" with OSHA usually meant a less lenient approach. Without openly expressing it, everyone knew the resulting OSHA investigation would be intense.

My supervisor at OSHA gave the investigation assignment to me because I was familiar with the technical aspects of the type of construction involved, was experienced in investigating fatalities, and was available to do the work.

As I looked at the case, the victim's substantial experience and training became apparent. This was a worker who had been at his trade for 15 years--three times as long as I had been with OSHA. The employer displayed training records related to topics such as site safety rules and fall arrest devices. Certainly, as in practically every other fatality, a lack of training could be ruled out as a cause during the first few hours of the inspection. Training turned out to be the only substantial safety precaution taken on the job.

There were no attachment points provided other than the structure itself. The company's lack of any preparation for fall protection, other than giving a standard-issue harness and lanyard to every worker, was evident. So was the lack of a clear sense of accountability for using the protection where feasible. Workers would sometimes go up without a harness.

The general foreman walked the site frequently while work was in progress. As a consequence, he was well aware the work was done in ways that would not comply with safety regulations, the employer's safety manual, or even the site rules. However, although the GF had the responsibility, he was certainly not forcing anyone to work with fall protection.

The workers were seen during the inspection to walk across the structure unprotected. When sitting down, they wrapped a lanyard around a beam or clipped a hook onto the edge of a flange. These were not safe uses of a lanyard and didn't protect very well.

The ironworkers gave me enthusiastic arguments and rationalizations against the safety practices. Several told me the job would take too long if fall protection were used as often as OSHA would have liked. There seemed to be a lot of excuses available from everyone, but no good reasons in sight. The risk was treated as reasonable, and perhaps a reason the ironworkers were paid more than other trades on the site.

The careless attitude toward the site's worst safety hazard transcended all levels, from senior management to hourly apprentices. As a company, disregarding the main hazard was deeply part of the culture from top to bottom.

Tuned Out to the Danger
Worker's compensation is about the only waste for which many companies routinely and contentedly budget hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet seem to pinch pennies when it is time to reduce the frequency of claims. The reasons for this are complex, and without some good investigative work we can only speculate as to why this occurs.

But let's get something out of the way before we begin: Although one might be surprised to hear a former OSHA inspector say this, I suspect there are very few companies that will consciously disregard legitimate major safety precautions and expose their workers to recognized dangers to save a few bucks. It's too hard to justify that kind of risk.

The reasons for missing the mark on safety are probably subtler than that. It might just be a kind of cultural inertia--that the old ways of doing things continue in spite of attempts by outside forces such as safety professionals, OSHA, and insurance carriers to change them. Maybe those in control know how to get a job done but do not understand that safety is a manageable quantity. A lack of knowledge of what it takes to structure and maintain a safety program, or perhaps insufficient management commitment, could be to blame. Perhaps some managers have a fear that strict safety measures to reduce accidents will make their companies uncompetitive. However, these are weak, vague, or subtle influences compared to the hard facts of injuries and insurance premiums.

My suspicion is that many companies need to learn how to tune in to the signs of danger and react in an assertive manner to reduce the danger. For the previously mentioned company, this seemed to be the main reason for the obvious lack of enthusiasm for the rules. The management downplayed the hazard with a rationalization based on the perceived skills of the ironworkers.

This happened in spite of the industry's many fatalities, which showed clearly that the average ironworker fatality involved a middle-aged journeyman with decades of beam-walking experience. They somehow did not respond to obvious signals that the same types of fall incidents could occur repetitively on their sites. The root of this inattention seems to be in the nature of the company's response to indications of a particular hazard.

There are models of safety success for comparison. These organizations are known to deal with hazardous jobs routinely, yet they have relatively low numbers of mishaps. If we look at accidents as failures and a consistent lack of failures as reliability of results, we could describe these industries as highly reliable in identifying and controlling hazards. These highly reliable companies in dangerous trades include fire departments, nuclear power plants, underwater demolition companies, and others in high-hazard operations. Organizations in dangerous fields by necessity have to learn how to function safely with high reliability.

Being thrust into a difficult situation is no excuse in these organizations for slacking off in safety. Their people are in difficult situations too often for that to be acceptable. They know that in the long term, they have to allow the time for training, practice, equipment, and--most of all--managerial emphasis to ensure everyone has what they need to work, including the motivation.

The Right Focus
Let's look at what you might find if you followed some firefighters on their jobs. Firefighters regularly enter buildings that are in the process of being destroyed by fire, yet they rarely get trapped in a collapsing structure. The safety emphasis in the average firehouse is on firefighting tactics and equipment, and the results show the emphasis has an effect.

The fact that firefighter deaths are infrequent makes them attention-getting in the press and lends to a popular notion that this is a trade with uncontrollable hazards. Actually, the top two causes of firefighter deaths are heart attacks and vehicle accidents. The focus of the prevention effort is on firefighting, and in some firehouses only rarely is there an emphasis on personal health and driving techniques. However, as a result of the National Fire Protection Association's work in these areas, some firehouses are implementing programs to address these risks. They are responding to new signals of hazards.

The bottom line is that success in controlling a particular hazard is proportional to the amount of attention on that hazard. It seems like a very elementary concept, but getting a company to focus on its most significant hazards is not always simple. That's why we have an OSHA, why insurance companies send loss control people to visit their clients and tell them how to do their jobs, why management commitment to safety is elemental to an accident prevention program, and why safety managers often seem frustrated by their lack of authority and accomplishment.

How can we get attention focused where it ought to be? Here are a few thoughts on tactics not to try first. Talking about the morality of protecting workers just might insult managers who, like most people, usually consider themselves already to be acting morally and ethically. Threatening that OSHA might inspect is hollow, in that OSHA inspects only a tiny percentage of businesses every year and its regulations don't even directly address the top workplace hazards of vehicle accidents, workplace violence, back strains, and repetitive motion disorders. Probably they will, however, check your fire extinguishers, MSDS collection, and ground prongs.

Companies may not intentionally neglect accident prevention for financial reasons, but they may be motivated by financial reality to prevent accidents. That's why safety professionals need to adopt a business approach to selling their plans. The safety profession has traditionally been a little too quick to rely on OSHA regulations and other weak motivators as sales tools. We need some heavy ammunition to get attention, not the small-caliber stuff. Bringing the total costs of accidents to management is a good, legitimate way to get things moving.

Dollars don't address human suffering, but they certainly get the attention. Compare the costs of prevention with the costs of an accident, and the prevention usually wins. A $5,000 lift table is cheaper than a $30,000 back injury case. Fall protection is far less costly than a fatality and the resulting lengthy work interruption.

Cultural Turnaround
This brings us back to our construction company with the fatal fall. The company underwent a total cultural change after this fatality. It decided worker's compensation and accidents aren't a cost of business but are controllable wastes. The company decided to go with a 100 percent fall protection policy on all of its sites, diving into the project with a sharp focus on making it work.

After an initial investment in equipment, design, training, and work practices, it became adept at working safely at any height. Now this company serves as a model of how to do it right while making a profit--and it has not had a fatality in 10 years. The firm has gone from being a near-pariah to a favorite of the larger general contractors. Some competitors, in contrast, can't even meet the safety components of the bid specs on large jobs.

Accident prevention is ultimately about focusing on the hazards that endanger people and finding the means to control them. When a company becomes attuned to reliably noticing and reacting to the subtle indications of a danger, it can accomplish great things. It takes a top-down push to consistently keep the whole company alert and responsive to hazards.

Senior management, setting the pace for the company, is the best possible motivator. Senior managers need to understand accidents are no more a cost of doing business than any other expensive waste. When senior management sees accident prevention as important, the company is free to become highly reliable in hazard recognition and response. Learning to present accident prevention in the language of business, by focusing on total costs, may be the best way to make it happen.

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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