Caring for Your Greatest Asset

Follow these steps to develop a comprehensive safety program that fully protects workers on the job.

By creating and nurturing a culture of safety, companies not only can prevent workers' injuries and illnesses, but also reduce the high costs associated with worker's compensation and increased insurance premiums, thus improving the bottom line. A rigorous, comprehensive safety program, endorsed by management and employees alike and assessed by third-party experts, can help organizations achieve constant, continuous improvement.

Workplace accidents and injuries have a financial, economic, and social impact on companies in every industry. The National Safety Council has estimated each disabling injury amounts to $39,0001. This figure includes wage losses, medical and administrative expenses, and employer costs. Also, according to some sources, worker's compensation costs resulting from disabling injuries amounted to $50.1 billion dollars (adjusted for potential inflation) in the United States in 20112.

However, there also is a significant indirect financial impact that arises as the organization and the worker begin to recover from an incident: lost production, lower sales, and fines from OSHA, as well as the expenses of recruiting, retraining, and replacing employees. In addition, the company must contend with low employee morale and internal and external perceptions of an unsafe workplace.

A consistent pattern was apparent in the kinds of violations that have been cited most frequently by OSHA during the past three years. Scaffolding, fall protection, and Hazard Communication have been the top three areas named in the OSHA’s annual list of most frequently cited violations.3,4,5 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fall-related injuries account for nearly 9 million emergency room visits each year6. In addition, the costs associated with falls on the same level and falls to a lower level -- the second and third causes of disabling injuries in 2009 -- have risen by 34.2 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively, in the past 12 years7.

Scaffolding and fall protection continue to be problematic because organizations often find it difficult to execute simple, cost-effective solutions. Two possible reasons for this growing trend are that people think tasks that present a risk for a fall occur rarely and it's too burdensome to conduct a formal assessment to determine how that risk can be completely eliminated, making it is easy to look the other way. However, that only exacerbates the problem, resulting in more falls on the job site.

Realizing a Multitude of Benefits
Many smaller companies may be overwhelmed by starting a safety program because of the perceived time and costs involved in its development. Working with a consultant should help companies identify low-cost tactics they can implement.

The most important overall benefits of a comprehensive safety program are the ones it provides to the company and its employees. An organization's most important assets are its people. Employees, regardless of the industry, possess invaluable business knowledge and specific skills acquired through extensive training and experience. Safety is a fundamental element in recruiting and retaining workers and can certainly enable them to feel appreciated. Making people feel their well-being and health are important also boosts morale and improves a company’s reputation in the community. The end result of a safety program -- continuous improvement with management and employee involvement -- should help overcome any barrier that may arise when creating the plan.

Best Practices: Analyze, Implement, and Monitor
After OSHA releases its annual list of most frequently cited violations, companies should take the time to review their own safety policies. Most of the violations included in OSHA's report can easily be prevented, protecting workers from harmful injury. OSHA citations have risen recently: OSHA recorded 68,076 violations in 2009, a 167 percent increase from the year before8. Being more diligent in the workplace and having the right culture in place can help jumpstart a comprehensive and effective safety program. When an organization begins to develop such an initiative, it should consider the following best practices:

  • Select a consistent safety methodology. Some construction companies have adopted workplace safety initiatives such as Target Zero and Six Sigma with the goal of eliminating all accidents on the job site. Set key performance metrics and goals for the safety program. Consider industry benchmarks -- accidents, days lost -- that impact the business the most.
  • Mobilize management and your workforce. The ideal safety management program requires cooperation between management and workers. Management should make safety a high priority for the company and encourage workers to take the program seriously. Employees should be able to report incidents that affect everyone's overall safety without fear of reprisal.
  • Conduct a comprehensive safety analysis. Review all tasks in the workplace, giving the greatest priority to such high-risk areas as fall protection, lockout/tagout, confined spaces, electrical safety, lifting and rigging, and heavy equipment use, since failures in those places can have serious -- and fatal -- consequences.
  • Evaluate the hazards of each task and make plans to correct them. Workplaces need to get more proactive about phasing out problematic procedures and replacing them with new, safer practices. Implement solutions to ensure the right equipment is being used for the right job. For example, if a company is striving to prevent falls, which are consistently one of the most frequently cited violations, an extension ladder or makeshift scaffold may not be the best choice for workers who need to use hand tools to access a motor or filter high above the shop floor.
  • If possible, use a trusted and objective third party to conduct safety assessments or external reviews. It can be difficult for a company’s internal safety team to complete intensive self-audits because they can see their program from an insular view. A third party can bring in a fresh perspective. For organizations with fewer than 250 employees, OSHA offers a free consulting program to help small businesses identify workplace hazards, advising on compliance and assisting in creating workplace health and safety programs.9
  • As the safety program is implemented, publicly display the metrics where a majority of employees can see them. Compiling the statistics on a dashboard on the shop floor, for example, helps reinforce the company's commitment to a culture of safety and enables workers to take a more active role as the organizations strives to meet its goals.
  • Provide ongoing education and training as a commitment to health, safety, and overall quality so management and workers alike have the proper skills to complete their jobs in a safe manner.
  • Constantly monitor and evaluate the program to ensure it is meeting the established benchmarks. As the company continues to refine its internal injury-prevention processes, it can examine industry leaders who are the most successful in preventing injuries in the workplace and emulate their best practices.

By adopting some of the best practices above, companies can create a comprehensive program that not only reduces injury in the workplace and keeps workers healthier, but also helps contain high health care costs and immediately improves the bottom line. With a safety plan in place, organizations are in a position to provide better health care coverage for their workers and minimize any increases to insurance premiums. A comprehensive injury-prevention program also ensures the company is compliant with OSHA and other federal agencies that enforce regulatory requirements in the workplace, helping to eliminate fines and citations. In addition, a program that strives for continuous improvement with detailed and specific activities for management accountability and employee involvement will help to boost productivity.

What the Future Holds
Developing a risk assessment and implementing solutions based on an in-depth hazard analysis are key to ensuring safety at the workplace. After realizing the benefits of a comprehensive safety initiative, companies can begin to incorporate metrics from that program into their standard common business key performance indicators, such as quality and cost, making safety an important business objective.

Cooperation between employees and management can lead to effective and efficient injury-prevention initiatives, as well as a cultural shift toward successful safety teams. These teams will have a stake in the program’s objectives as they understand workplace safety is an overriding priority and have the means to implement solutions without barriers.

1. National Safety Council Injury Facts, 2008 Edition,
2. 2011 Workplace Safety Index, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety
3. OSHA's Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Violations for 2011 (top 3: scaffolding, fall protection and hazard communication),
4. OSHA's Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Violations for 2010 (top 3: scaffolding, fall protection and hazard communication),
5. OSHA's Top 10 Most Frequently Cited Violations for 2009 (top 3: scaffolding, fall protection and hazard communication),
6. Injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments, by sex, age, and intent and mechanism of injury: United States, average annual, selected years 1995–1996 through 2007–2008, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010, Table 90 (page 1 of 2),
7. From Research to Reality: New Research Directions, Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Workplace Safety (downloadable PDF),
8. The Obama Approach to Public Protection: Enforcement, OMB Watch
9. OSHA's on-site consultation for small businesses,
10. Injury and Illness Prevention White Paper, OSHA,
11. Fall Injuries Prevention in the Workplace, Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention,

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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