Survey Says . . . Renewed Commitment to Safety Needed

We need support, engagement, and managers and safety professionals who actually understand real-world performance concerns from our employees, so the proper solutions can be found.

Each year, Kimberly-Clark Professional conducts a survey of safety professionals to identify the current status, trends, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace. We share its findings each year to help safety professionals across North America with insights that create safer, healthier, and more productive workplaces. The surveys have included responses from safety professionals who are responsible for purchasing or influencing the purchase of PPE. Respondents are from companies of various sizes, having fewer than 100 employees to more than 500 employees, and industries ranging from aerospace, metal manufacturing, oil and gas, construction, and utilities to food processing, just to name a few. In the latest survey, it shouldn't be surprising that, based on the professionals surveyed, 85 percent state that safety is a top priority within their organizations.

If a comparison were made between the 2012 survey and previous years, the reality is that although the numbers have dropped slightly to show some improvement, there really is no significant sign of advancement in most categories. It is the same as the adage that says, "How can we continue to do the same things over and over while expecting different results?"

Based on survey findings since 2006, I believe there are four critical steps safety professionals must address to improve their results: continuing to recognize the need for engaged leadership, confront challenges associated with eye protection, reevaluate the value of their education and training programs, and focus PPE investments on comfort above other factors.

Recognizing the Need for Engaged Leadership
As a 35-plus-year safety professional, I was stunned to see the following 2012 survey result: 82 percent of respondents state they have observed someone in the organization not wearing PPE when performing tasks for which PPE should be used. However, perhaps this is not as surprising as it should be, based on another 2012 survey finding: The leading responses for what created the top safety issue within their workplaces are worker compliance (43 percent) and insufficient management support (20 percent).

When a company's focus at the outset is on worker compliance, followed by insufficient or no management support, what conclusion can a person draw other than that people who should care about safety actually don't care about it at all? I am not an advocate of believing it is always management's fault, as many regulatory agencies would have us believe. There are levels of personal responsibility for every employee, but the sad fact remains that if a manager sets the bar at "floor level," that is the level of achievement employees will hit.

In a white paper provided by another safety publication, the top reason as to why safety programs fail is disengaged leadership (65 percent).1 If the goal is to simply have an employee comply with standards, we as safety professionals create the environment of being completely out of touch with our front-line managers and employees, because our goal is not to provide real-world solutions for our people, but rather to ensure they follow the letter of the law. That reasoning, for many employees, has no practical value. The fact that there is little management support suggests there is also a perception that there is no real safety value within the organization and no expectation by employees to be safe.

We cannot assume our employees will take on safe practices simply because we tell them to do so. We have a responsibility to show our people the value of safety. This can be through appropriate task training, properly conducted safety meetings, and effectively communicating the true sense of the employee's value to the organization. If we merely accept "compliance" as our driving force and put up with walking by hazards every day simply because there is no "standard" that applies, we are at fault for our poor safety performance. Unfortunately, that poor performance relates to real body parts and lives being in the crosshairs, just waiting for an injury or illness to occur.

Managers and safety professionals have a responsibility to help their employees do better. Getting the management support and employee training right is only part of the solution. In the 2012 survey, when safety professionals were asked the reason why people did not wear the necessary PPE, the top three responses were that the employee didn't know it was needed (indicating proper training must be given), it was "uncomfortable," and it was too hot (again, a comfort level issue). Another sad note is that more than one out of five respondents indicated they were unsure or didn't answer the question, leading me to believe there is no real engagement taking place with employees. Again, 82 percent of safety professionals stated that employees were not wearing PPE when they should have been, but 21 percent responded that they didn't know why PPE wasn't being worn.

Addressing the Most Challenging PPE: Eyewear
In 2012, the leading response (37 percent) as to which type of PPE workers find to be most challenging to wear was eye protection, more than two to one above the next category of PPE, gloves. I have worn prescription glasses since first grade, and I know it can be easy for lenses to fog and there are challenges with uncomfortably fitting, over-the-glass eyewear, whether glasses or goggles. In addition, I find wearing any type of respirator creates additional eyewear fogging, so I understand how this category could be a challenge.

Prevent Blindness America states that 90 percent of the 2,000-plus eye injuries every day are preventable.2 The group found that three out of five people who had an injury did not wear any eye protection at all and that 40 percent wear the wrong eye safeguards for the task.2 When I read an incident investigation report to learn that an employee who had a splash injury states he had eye protection on because he was wearing his safety glasses with side shields, rather than goggles, I know that is a safety program that is not working!

The survey has asked respondents what they have recently done or are going to do within the next 12 months to encourage PPE compliance within their facilities. In 2012, an overwhelming number (61 percent) stated they are working on improving their education and training programs. If this includes proper task training that integrates safety hazards and protective measures with accurately written standard operating procedures (SOPs), it can be reinforced in the safety training sessions and begin to drive change in how safety is valued and how tasks are performed. The concern is that this has been the number one choice in the survey since 2008; is anyone actually making progress, or are they just hoping it happens on its own?

The Need for a Greater Focus on Comfort
In the 2012 survey, more than 70 percent of responses relate to PPE being uncomfortable or too hot, but only one in four safety professionals stated they would find more comfortably fitting PPE. Another 11 percent said they would find "more stylish" PPE, create incentive programs, or other, meaning they didn't really have a solution.

Through my corporate safety experience, I learned quickly that purchasing the flavor of the month for styling is a waste of money and takes up way too much storage space. Style is certainly a factor, but don’t base your budget on whether your people "look good" because every month, they will have you chasing another style. Comfort is the greatest concern. Incentive programs, if not run properly, will get your organization in trouble with OSHA and with your employees. We don't need incentives and giveaways. We need support, engagement, and managers and safety professionals who actually understand real-world performance concerns from our employees so the proper solutions can be found.

While many of the survey findings remained relatively constant year to year, there was one category of questions, relating to laundered shop towels, where respondents had increased concerns over time. These questions tie to the fact that laundered shop towels can cause exposure to levels of heavy metals that exceed health-based guidelines, whether the organization uses heavy metals in processes or not. For 2012, 72 percent of the survey respondents indicated this was a concern for their organizations. In 2011, the independent Gradient study commissioned by Kimberly-Clark Professional showed that 100 percent of laundered shop towels tested contained heavy metals. Additionally, 51 percent of 2012 survey respondents stated a concern that laundered shop towels containing toxic heavy metals, even after laundering, pose environmental risks greater than disposable wipes.

Safety: Toward a Better Return on Investment
Safety professionals are looking for ways to have a better return on investment that demonstrates a more effective safety training and compliance program. In 2012, many survey respondents (58 percent) stated they are seeking savings on worker’s compensation costs, followed by increased productivity, improved morale, and industry recognition.

Creating and maintaining a strong safety culture will make positive changes throughout the entire organization. When every employee practices the real value of safety, injuries will drop, leading to lower costs as well as higher profits, productivity, employee morale, and industry recognition. While the need for embracing a safety culture is critical, many of the survey numbers for 2012 equal those of prior years. For 2013, let's commit to our employees that we can do better, and we'll discover in the next survey results how successful we were in bringing positive change to our safety commitment and value.

The most recent Kimberly-Clark Professional survey about PPE use is available at http://investor.kimberly-clark.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=712258.

References
1. ISHN, "2011 White Paper," Page 16, http://www.ishn.com/ext/resources/Clear_Seas/2011-White-Paper.pdf
2. Preventable Blindness America, http://www.preventblindness.org/

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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