Not Everything is a SAFETY Problem

Attitude, Basics, and Culture are among the building blocks of sound safety programs.

IT was during a recent safety inspection for a contractor that I finally realized not everything is a safety problem.

One of the students on an inspection team found a fire extinguisher that had been placed on the ground for so long, it had rusted to the floor and become a residence for several spiders. The only reason for the extinguisher to be in this unusual condition was the fact this particular organization was going through some "downsizing."

The inspection team asked what OSHA standards and NFPA standards were violated. I told them the OSHA regulations are found under 29 CFR 1910.157, and you can find fire extinguishers under NFPA 15. I also asked if this were in fact a safety issue or some other problem, such as local leadership or the local fire inspector not doing his job.

My career in workplace safety began in 1984 in the Marine Corps. One of my many duties was to ensure all Marines in my organization attended a mandatory driver improvement program before reaching their 26th birthday. Though not a difficult program to manage, it did prove to be a tedious one. Seventeen years later, I was back teaching safety courses to the Marines and realized these future safety managers were having some of the same safety problems I had experienced almost two decades before.

The problem was not the rules and regulations established to manage the program. There was a lack of leadership supporting the safety managers. There always was an excuse why an individual could not attend training--but the leadership would be the first to criticize the safety manager when this individual was denied driving privileges for not attending the course.

One thing that I do live by, and it is part of any safety training class that I teach, is what I call the ABCs of Safety. I have seen articles written on that subject, but I would like to add my own version.

A is for Attitude and Agenda
A stands for ATTITUDE. I have observed, and learned the hard way, that safety professionals have attitudes, too. Many want the perfect safety program regardless of circumstances, and this can be more damaging to the program than employees' attitudes. Look at the process, not the outcome.

Every organization also has a number of employees who have a bad attitude about safety. Some of them also are disciplinary problems, disregard other company rules and regulations, abuse sick leave and company uniform regulations, and fail to wear PPE--but they are first to cry foul when injured on the job. These are the same people who will abuse worker's compensation with a bogus claim.

A also stands for AGENDA. In order to manage any safety program, you first must conduct a needs assessment, then set goals and objectives. Third, you must implement and design programs. Finally, you must conduct an evaluation. It sounds simple enough. There are safety professionals who have made this process even simpler, however.

First, ask "Where are we now?" Follow with, "Where do we want to go?" Ask, "How do we get there?" And finally ask, "How did we do?" Write these four questions on your agenda or plan and charge your safety committee with finding the answers.

Another A that's very important when it comes to safety is AGGRESSIVE. Keep in mind that safety programs are not for the meek and mild. There must be an aggressive safety program with the support of senior and top management.

B is for Basics
B stands for BASICS. Many safety professionals try to improve on safety programs but have forgotten or overlooked some basics. The most basic requirement is top management support.

I was tasked with teaching the Hazard Communication Standard to an organization where many drivers were responsible for cleaning up hazardous chemical spills and transporting the hazardous waste to a nearby disposal facility. It was not a real area of concern except for one major problem: Some of these drivers refused to wear a seat belt and had been counseled about the possibility of repercussions if their attitude didn't change.

Here, the basics were overlooked. How can a safety officer or an outside consultant instruct a group of employees about OSHA standards, chemicals, Material Safety Data Sheets, and labels when their employer cannot get them to wear a seat belt? Keep an eye on the basics.

C is for Culture, Change, and Caring
The letter C seems to be common with most safety professionals. It stands for CULTURE. Every organization has its own unique culture. Some have the culture of a big, happy family; others have a culture of distrust and can be confrontational. There is a myriad of other cultures, as well as subcultures. The safety professional needs to work through those areas that may be causing the culture. If the culture is believing management doesn't care, find out why employees feel that way and change that perception.

Two other Cs also are building blocks for safety programs. One is the constant CHANGE we go through, and the other stands for CARING. Programs need to change and the organization needs to care: Simple management skills.

Money and Root Causes
The last letter I want to share with you is M, for MONEY. Safety programs cost money; the organization can pay now or pay later.

I recently saw a message seeking a safety manager in California for a large organization of about 10,000 people. The hourly rate was $18. This ad reminded me of the story about a man who always complained about his pastor and the pastor's sermon. But the man puts $1 into the collection at every service. His son sees and hears this many times until finally he looks at his father and asks, "What do you expect for a dollar?"

Recently I have been adding as many safety professionals to my database as possible. I've discovered my concerns are the same as for others who have chosen safety as their profession. We don't face real SAFETY problems, but safety seems to be a good scapegoat for many of our organizations' problems. Employees' refusing to wear seat belts is not a safety issue, but a management issue.

Top management needs to realize there are morale problems, there are legal issues, there are disgruntled employees, and there are lazy employees. Organizations hire problems, and some supervisors are not going to enforce the rules. There are employees who will not work safely.

Safety professionals, keep doing your job and manage aggressive safety programs. You are not the problem, but you are part of the solution. Remind your employees that it takes only a second to become a statistic.

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

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