Safety, in Other Words

In mulling over the subject of safety, as I am prone to do, two questions keep popping up: Just what is safety? And, can you define safety in just a word or two?

During my presentations, I ask attendees to offer their definitions of safety. There are many responses and every one is different, which indicates to me that it might not be possible to arrive at a universally accepted definition of safety, though I'll offer mine later.

I ask myself whether safety can be summed up in just one word, or maybe just two or three. Maybe not, as a large number of words come quickly to mind, all of which, in my mind, could certainly be construed to be critical components of safety.

How many of the following, if incorporated into safety programs, do you feel would enhance their effectiveness?

 All of us
 Considerate  Knowing  Risk
 Alertness  Core value
 Learning  Seeing
 Attentive  Culture  Listening  Sharing
 Awareness  Effective  Mentoring  State of Mind
 Careful  Fixing  Minimizing mistakes
 Caring  Focus  Monitoring  Thoughtful
 Caution  Following the rules
 Nurturing  Training
 Checklists  Going home
 Observant  Up to Me
 Comfort level
 Guiding  Protecting  Understanding
 Common sense
 Hazards  Reporting  Warning
 Concerned  Instinct  Responding  Well-being
 Confidence  Investigating  Responsible  Working together

From the length of this list, it would appear that safety must be considered to be made up of a large number of elements. With so many possible elements that one might consider integral to safety, is it any wonder that safety programs may be less than they can be?

The list above is probably not complete, but incorporating as many of these elements as possible might go a long way toward an improved safety record.

The list of things that Safety is not is a lot shorter. Here are few. How many more can you name?

 Absence of accidents/injuries
 Absence of risk
 Absence of hazards
 Just a management responsibility

No matter how hazard-free the workplace, there will still be near misses, accidents, and injuries. Why? Because people (both management and workforce):

  • Are human
  • Make mistakes
  • Put production ahead of safety
  • Take short cuts
  • Can be distracted
  • Fail to report unsafe conditions, unsafe behaviors, and near misses
  • Can make wrong choices or errors in judgment
  • Don't always pay attention
  • Lose focus
  • Rush
  • Don't always observe signs and/or rules
  • Often don't "see" what is right in front of them
  • May choose not to work safely
  • May not provide guidance, oversight, and mentoring
  • May fail to wear PPE
  • Don't watch out for each other
  • Don't provide training, PPE, properly guarded machinery
  • Don't identify and fix problems
  • Do something in a way that is not comfortable or safe, just to get it done

No safety program is perfect. Programs evolve based on what is learned from day-to-day experiences. Success depends on management and the workforce working together to both create as hazard-free a work environment as possible and to identify and abate risks, the potential for harm that hazards, unsafe conditions, and unsafe acts create.

Here's where I offer my best definition of safety. Safety is a combination of safe working condition and safe behaviors.

Why do people take risks that are not inherent in their jobs? Let's recognize that there are two types of risk – necessary and unnecessary.

There are occupations that involve inherent risk. If you Google "Most Dangerous Jobs," you will find a few "Top 10" lists published by various sources. They don't agree on a single Top 10 list, but there is a short list of perhaps 20 jobs that are cited, based upon various statistical risk categories, most prominently, work-related fatalities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an article entitled "Dangerous Jobs: Compensation and Working Conditions, Summer -- 1997" included an "Index of Relative Risk for Fatal Occupational Injuries, 1995," which graphically showed that the most dangerous job, commercial fisherman, had a relative risk of 21.3 vs. a relative risk of 1 for All Occupations, based on per capita fatality rates.

Unnecessary risks are taken for reasons that, though the end results are expected to be good, the goal may not be reached before an accident or injury happens. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Simply don't know the hazards (poor HazCom training)
  • Rushing to meet production goals or supervisor pressure
  • We don't believe that we're going to be hurt
  • We've done it before without injury
  • We think that we can get away with it (risky behavior)
  • Peer pressure
  • Company culture does not support safety
  • It's the path of least resistance
  • The safe way may take time and extra effort
  • Shortcuts
  • Pleasing the supervisor
  • Distractions/lack of focus

Overcoming risk-taking requires an ongoing effort on the part of management, supervision and the workforce. It comes down to implementing an approach to safety that works for the organization. It starts with management, who must set the tone by:

  • Taking an active role in establishing safety as a core value, not just a priority
  • Providing meaningful training that is taken to heart and retained in practice
  • Establishing work rules that place safety on a par with production
  • Opting for engineering and administrative controls wherever possible
  • Ensuring that machinery has all of the required safety features
  • Providing adequate PPE and training in proper use, storage, maintenance, and disposal
  • Posting sufficient signage to provide constant reminders
  • Investigating all near misses, incidents, and accidents and following up with corrective action
  • Hiring practices that recruit people who are identified as safety conscious
  • Prevention through design

Supervisors need to:

  • Accept safety as a partner to production
  • Be role models by following all safety rules
  • Ensure that safety rules are disseminated, understood, and followed
  • Mentor employees, applauding safe actions and correcting unsafe actions in a non-confrontational manner
  • Welcome safety suggestions and observations
  • Discipline only as a last resort when all else fails to produce safe work

Employees need to:

  • Follow established work procedures and safety rules
  • Actively participate in and embrace safety training
  • Look out for each other
  • Report all accidents, incidents, and near misses
  • Report hazards and point out areas where safety can be strengthened
  • Maintain constant awareness of their surroundings

It takes constant effort on the part of each tier of an organization's structure to create and maintain a safe working environment. The more elements that are implemented, the better the safety program will be.

Joseph J. Werbicki, M.S., CSP, is a safety consultant, lecturer, and author. His articles have appeared in Occupational Health & Safety, EHS Today, and newsletters of the Boston, Springfield, and Worcester ASSE chapters. He served as chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Safety Council and president of the Safety Association of Rhode Island. He is a member of the Boston ASSE Chapter and currently serves as program chairman for the Safety Association of Rhode Island. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Posted on Sep 13, 2016

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