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Protecting Safety in Tough Economic Times

In a tough economy it may be tempting to reduce spending by purchasing lower-cost safety equipment or protective apparel, but at what price?

In difficult economic times, virtually all companies seek to streamline their cost structures focusing on cost-cutting and cost avoidance measures in order to weather the downturn. The operational infrastructure of most businesses tends to grow in good times, yet rarely is that equal to the swift reductions taken when business volumes decline. While protecting the bottom line is essential, it's important not to cut back in areas where the risks may be far greater than any near-term gains.

Worker safety is one such area and a crucial component of industrial operations that cannot be shortchanged. And when it comes to safety in the workplace, doing the right thing is generally the most morally correct, legally responsible. and economically prudent approach.

Although many companies have made solid gains in the area of safety compliance in recent years, there is still more work to be done:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 4 million recordable nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses in private industry workplaces in 2007.
  • The direct and indirect costs of work-related injuries and illnesses exceed $170 billion annually.

An increased emphasis on safety and more vigorous oversight is also expected under the Obama administration. The president's budget, released in February, calls for more funding for OSHA. Additionally, the average penalty per serious violation has risen steadily from 2005-2009, and with PPE ranking in the top 10 of most-cited safety standards (for general industry), there's a good chance it will remain a top concern and area for future citations.

Clearly, failure to follow proper safety procedures is a mistake that can jeopardize employee health and safety, as well as your bottom line. Yet some companies may be looking to cut corners in PPE and/or PPE compliance programs; in fact, there are troubling indications this is already occurring. In September 2008, 34 percent of safety professionals said the economy had already begun to impact worker safety training programs or resources. This finding comes from a survey conducted at the 2008 National Safety Congress by Kimberly-Clark Professional. Of those respondents who said the economy had impacted safety training or resources, the survey found that:

  • 63 percent said it had led to less money for education and training.
  • 42 percent said it had resulted in reduced personnel to handle safety training tasks.
  • 33 percent said the faltering economy had led to business concerns taking precedence over safety concerns.

These cutbacks are taking place despite the fact that some industry experts estimate that a good safety program can pay for itself by saving $4 to $6 for every dollar invested.

A March 2009 manufacturing industry survey undertaken by Kimberly-Clark Professional further underscored the ongoing focus on cost-savings in the industrial workplace. That survey revealed that 72 percent of respondents expect to cut operating supplies in 2009 in an overall effort to reduce costs, 41 percent reported being worried about losing their jobs if they could not find ways to save their companies money, and nearly half plan to switch to lower-priced or lower-performing products to save money.

In a tough economy it may be tempting to reduce spending by purchasing lower-cost safety equipment or protective apparel, but at what price? If the equipment or apparel doesn't stand up to the job or isn't right for the application, it will increase the risk to workers, as well as offset any planned savings. When it comes to PPE, comfort is key to compliance. Lower-cost options may not provide the same level of comfort, which could lead to reduced productivity, impacting potential savings. And if the PPE is not comfortable, workers may be less likely to wear it, which could lead to injury, further impacting the potential for savings. "Wearability" issues such as these extend to all types of PPE, from head-to-toe.

Wiping Out Unnecessary Costs
Similarly, when it comes to selecting maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) products and consumables, a product that may appear to be the least-expensive option may not in fact be the most cost-effective choice. Quality products may come with a slightly higher price tag, but if they perform better and last longer, the overall cost-in-use may be less than an inferior product at a lower price-point.

Take wiping products, for example. Wipers are an essential component of many workplaces. They are used in virtually every aspect of a facility's production, equipment maintenance, and housekeeping operations, as well as in laboratory settings and for personal cleaning. In many instances, wipers are an indispensable tool for performing a particular task. Therefore, the proper selection and use of wiping systems can have a positive influence on a facility's productivity, safety, regulatory compliance, and bottom line.

Wipers generally fall into two categories: textiles (including rags and rental shop towels) and disposables (including paper-based and non-woven wipers). Scrap rags or rental shop towels may appear less costly than task-engineered disposable wipers, but appearances can be deceiving. Because rags and rental shop towels are not specifically designed for a particular task, they can be inconsistent, which can lead to waste. As a result, their cost-in-use may potentially be greater than disposable wipers. In addition, while a laundering service generally offers drop-off and pickup of rental shop towels, consider the time and expense it takes to distribute and re-collect them throughout the facility. There also may be "hidden costs" associated with rental shop towels, including automatic fees for "replacement charges" under the assumption some towels will be lost. Launderers may also pass on additional charges to help cover their waste management costs.

Rental shop towels, even after laundering, may pose certain health risks. An independent study conducted by the Gradient Corporation revealed that tested "clean" shop towel samples contained oil and grease and many contained elevated levels of heavy metals, such as lead. The average amount of lead found in the tested laundered shop towels exceeded CalEPA's Prop 65 levels for reproductive effects by 26 times, according to the study, which also showed how elevated levels of heavy metals on shop towels can get onto hands and then inadvertently into a worker's mouth, where they might be ingested.

Hazard Assessment
OSHA requires that employers conduct a hazard assessment of the workplace as a first step in selecting and then providing PPE for their employees. OSHA also mandates that employers provide written certification that the hazard assessment has taken place. In spite of this, however, one source estimates 60 to 70 percent of companies have not conducted an adequate hazard assessment, and potentially more lack the necessary written certification.

A common-sense analysis of the hazards in the workplace combined with an assessment of the realistic level of risk each hazard poses is crucial in selecting PPE and other consumables that can impact worker health and safety. For example, a hazard assessment may identify the chemical acetone in the workplace, as well as the potential hazards associated with its use. However, there is a great deal of difference in the protective apparel required for a worker exposed to a quart of acetone in a well-ventilated room and for one who is exposed to a large vat of acetone in an enclosed space.

Or consider a laboratory where a trained technician is working with 10ml of sulfuric acid at a time to create a dilute solution. Here, the quantity of acid is small, and only the technician's hands and forearms are entering the area of potential exposure. So, even though a splash is possible, the whole body is not exposed, and the volume of chemical is minimal. A hazard assessment and risk analysis of this workplace scenario might drive toward a selection of gloves and sleeve protectors, and possibly a chemical apron, but not a full-body coverall.

It's important for hazard assessment procedures to adequately assess the practical demands of the work task, making sure that workers are neither over- nor under-protected, but rather are using the appropriate level of protection for the job. As a result, a hazard assessment is not only "law," but also it can be a useful tool in helping to determine points of exposure and opportunities for cost savings.

Using Site Needs Analysis
In conjunction with a hazard assessment, companies may consider conducting a site needs analysis as yet another way to increase workplace efficiency and safety. This type of evaluation can help employers identify ways to control costs and increase overall performance without compromising safety. A site needs analysis can help to:

  • Find practical solutions to safety program challenges
  • Uncover ways to potentially improve incident occurrence rates
  • Minimize worker exposure to hazardous materials
  • Validate PPE use by application
  • Identify opportunities to increase compliance with PPE protocols

A site needs analysis can help to uncover situations where workers aren't using the right PPE for the job. Something as simple as using a heavy-duty wiper for a light-duty task can needlessly add to your costs, while using a light-duty wiper for a tough task can result in excessive use, which also poses a negative impact on consumables spending.

If your organization has the requisite expertise in-house, this type of site review can be done internally. It also can be conducted with the help of a safety supplier who offers these services.

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