Safety Management Challenges: History and Program Issues

Safety Management Challenges: History and Program Issues

The question is: Why do workers continue to get injured on the job despite federal standards interjecting?

Prior to 1911 (first state to enacted workers compensation law) organizations cared little or not at all when it came to work related accidents and injuries. Many progressive states enacted workers compensation laws in the second decade of the last century with others slowly getting on board until the last state in 1948. The workers compensation laws require organizations to purchase insurance so that injured workers received medical care as well as some compensation during their recovery and possibly beyond. Since this caused businesses to indirectly have to pay for worker injuries, they started looking for ways to eliminate or reduce the injury risks associated with their production work.

In spite of organization’s best efforts, injuries and fatalities still occurred, but at a somewhat reduced rate. After about half a century of this state of affairs, public sentiment and a few other factors caused the Federal government to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970. OSHA developed safety standards which businesses were obligated to comply with. The agency also had the authority to levy fines and penalties if they determined that organizations failed to maintain “safe” operations. This again refocused many organizations to adopt safety programs, and try to further reduce worker accidents. To some extent they managed to reduce injuries and fatalities, but even now, 50 years later the results are far from stellar!

Safety General Practices

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks and reports on occupational injuries and fatalities, reported (latest data available is for 2018) worker injuries at over 2.8 million and fatalities at over 2550 for that year. There probably are a significant number of minor injuries for which reporting is not required, and of course there are “near misses” which, but for luck, did not result in an injury, as well. So, in spite of all these efforts workers still get injured and suffer with some even dying at work.

The typical organizational safety management program is usually written and starts off with a statement professing to value their employees and wanting to provide them with an injury free workplace. It generally consists of rules, required procedures and expected practices, involving physical hazardous conditions in the worksite. The program may also refer to regular and special training, signage, inspections, feedback and rewards for adherence and consequences for not following program requirements. The organization may provide employees with a handbook summarizing key program points. Some of the more refined programs may also include specialized elements dealing with driving for the company, substance abuse, etc. The body of this program usually is a regurgitation of safety standards, in order to comply with the governing requirements as promulgated by the state or federal jurisdiction.

The basic structure of most safety programs goes back to the three Es: Engineering, Education, Enforcement. This approach was created by the National Safety Council as a simplification of H.W. Heinrich's 10 axioms for safety management. Virtually all safety standards fall into one of these categories. The engineering element address the physical hazards associated with the worksite conditions and the protection of employees from exposure to them. Education deals with providing the employee with training associated with the standards. And enforcement dealing with site inspections looking for physical hazards and worker compliance with expectations.

A careful evaluation of the OSHA standards will show that just about every element in the standards deals almost exclusively with hazards associated with physical conditions. There is a downside to all of this—most incidents that may cause employee injury do not come from the physical environment, but from the actions of the employees as proven by a research study of over seventy thousand accidents analyzed by HW Heinrich in 1931. He found that:

  • Eighty-eight percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees;
  • Ten percent of the accidents were traced to hazards involving the physical environment;
  • Two percent of the accident’s cause could not be ascertained.

In 1966 FE Bird analyzed over 1.7 million accident reports from hundreds of companies and concluded that:

  • Ninety-five percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees;
  • Five percent of the accidents were traced to causes from the physical environment

It was known as early as the 1931 and confirmed in 1966 that most of accidents were caused by worker’s actions or behavior and yet the bulk of interventions still primarily utilized today involves training sessions regurgitating the OSHA standards which primarily address physical conditions. Is it surprising that accident still occur?

Here is an example: The OSHA standards have a hand full of requirements for setting up of extension ladders, after which it is used by multiple workers and possibly over multiple days, to get from a level up to where they are working. To do their work they may need tools, equipment or material. This would mean that they will be carrying something in one hand while climbing. The only safe way of climb a ladder requires a 3-point contact with the ladder at all times (2 legs and 1 hand OR 1 leg and 2 hands). So, every other step a worker take in the act of climbing is done at risk of falling because one hand is carrying something. This means that the ladder was put up safely once and used unsafely multiple times.

So, the traditional safety program's emphasis on conditions does not focus on the behavior of the employees and therefore has limited impact curbing accidents on thereby controlling the cost of risk! So again, the question is why do workers do what they do which results in accidents and injuries. There are a number of additional underlying factors driving the outcomes which will be covered in future articles.

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