It's Time for an Annual Refresher!

We have to be creative in how we share information with employees.

A posh hotel besieged with panicked employees running for their lives and commandos ringing the buildings. We saw this crisis unfold live; it reminds us that now is the time to refresh employees’ awareness of evacuation and preparedness procedures and their own roles. Do it now!

We safety professionals sometimes become complacent when things are quiet. We breathe deeply, relishing the calm and using the time to plan ahead. Others get tired of the same topics over and over and forget to update everyone. The true safety “what if” gurus try to find new and fresh ideas to get the message across to every employee about needs during emergency situations. We lean on structured classroom training for employee needs and often ignore specialized quick topics that need educational efforts, too. Most safety work is done long before the crisis arises; employees must react correctly based on prior education and training.

The sad reality is that every workplace has a potential for some type of mass emergency, ranging from fire to earthquakes, terrorism, chemical exposures, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding, to name only a few. What about security threats, such as an irate former employee armed and inside your building? Are your employees ready and able to react to save themselves in times of crisis?

In these lean budget times, we must be even more creative with information sharing. Our budgets are being slashed or put on hold for organized training activities, but safety still has to continue. Awareness becomes more important than hands-on training for some topics where employees had previous training but need reminders to bring the topic back into focus. Another great feature of regular awareness efforts is keeping the lines of communication open so employees at all levels feel comfortable coming to you with potential problems and situations needing assistance.

Communication Imperatives Use the means you have to get the message across. If you have an intranet site, use it. Or utilize mass e-mails, handouts for supervisors to discuss when handing out paychecks, postings on employee bulletin boards, paycheck stuffers, posters—whatever works! Not all safety efforts cost big bucks. And to be honest, not every topic requires an hour of intensive training. Be reasonable, be brief; your goal is to enhance your already-in-place or building safety efforts, not overload employees with pages of jargon no one will read.

If the information fills more than two pages of small type, split it into more than one awareness item. Use large type sizes, short sentences, and keep a non-threatening tone. Be positive and proactive (not whiny and condescending). Threats about non-compliance do not sell safety efforts effectively.

Document everything. If you have a training database, document each safety awareness or alert for every employee on the date you sent it. Reinforce to all supervisors their role in helping to get the message out (document that, too), and keep a paper copy in case it’s ever needed. Pull in help from your safety committee for new ideas and assistance. Scour other safety sources for topics and possible handout information.

Topics are endless, but some of the most-needed ones may include:

Fire drills, essential to workplace safety. Each facility must hold at least two per year (additional requirements apply depending on shifts, specific hazards, and policy). Make sure every new employee is made aware of the need to participate and how to identify alarms and the meaning of each.

Fire safety is more than fire extinguishers! Employees must understand keeping aisles clear, exits free from obstructions, and reporting exit lights that have burned out, in addition to location of fire extinguishers and how to use them. Make sure each employee is aware of your specific policy on whether to fight incipient-stage fires or to evacuate. When the time is right, reinforce your space heater policy, no candles or open flames, etc.

Chemicals—use, misuse, labeling, and disposal. Add to your basic Hazard Communication program by reminding employees how to dispose of chemicals correctly, when to ask for help, and where all HazCom materials and spill cleanup supplies are located.

Evacuations. They’re not just for fire situations; employees must understand evacuation can mean security threats, community threats, or potential unknown situations never thought of before. Each employee must evacuate without question when the signal is given. Employees need to understand to take visitors, patients, students, etc. with them when evacuating a facility.

Sounds to recognize—alarms, signals, etc. Also sounds to recognize when something is going very wrong and to report it. (An example is an employee’s overhearing gunfire but dismissing it and continuing a lunch break.) Reinforce how to report problems, when to call police, the use of switchboards for large corporations— all are important items, as is sheltering in place if gunfire is heard. Whom to call when “something just not right” is seen. Fast follow-up is critical in such cases.

Strange but true. Make sure your lines of communication really are open, and the little bizarre workplace safety items will come to you more often than you would like. My favorite: snakes falling from the ceiling in a hospital office. A really nice office had yearly problems until it came to my attention because snakes fell from the ceiling onto desks. One employee actually had a garden hoe in the corner to kill snakes. It was all true; a broken outside vent gave passage to snakes seeking warmth in this 100-year-old building.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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