Problems with Safety Management: Management and Practices Issues

OSHA standards are primarily focused on worksite conditions, so such exposures should be identified and addressed before workers are exposed to them.

In a prior article on Safety Management Challenges – History & Program Issues, the problems with safety management were discussed from a historic program standards perspective. Let’s look at the management of safety and how the traditional means and methods may also contribute to the ineffectiveness of the practice, along with potential undesirable outcomes. Some of this stems from the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Due to the fact that the OSHA standards were voluminous, dealt with the large number of potential hazardous conditions workers could be exposed to in the work environment and required a significant number of training sessions to be provided to workers in order to familiarize them with the standards, the industry made a determination that this would have to be handled by someone other than their operational supervisors. These people were responsible for planning, organizing, directing, staffing, decision-making, problem solving and controlling the production work as well as managing the risks associated with meeting contract obligations. Therefore, they should not have to take on this additional safety responsibility.

Bifurcation of Responsibility

This effectively segregated the oversight of safety from the organization’s operations to be treated as a stand-alone function. The superintendent and the operational staff were primarily responsible for the production of the work, utilizing the project schedule to meet the contract completion date. They had to ensure that the work was put in place in accordance with the specification in order to meet the quality expectations. They also had to manage any and all subcontractors to ensure meeting the contract obligations.

As a result, the organization assigned management of worker safety to a knowledgeable person, or in some cases, a department, to ensure that they were in full compliance with the requirements and obligations of the OSHA standards. This meant that the safety practitioner(s) became responsible to ensure that the physical condition where the workers were carrying out their work was free of physical hazards, that they were engaged in doing their work in accordance with the standards and performed their tasks in a safe manner and in such a way as to avoid getting injured.

Typically, the safety practitioner accomplishes this by making site visits in which they check for hazardous conditions, which are then either corrected on the spot or brought to the attention of the supervisor in order to have it corrected. The other aspect of the inspection tour was to observe workers working and looking for any action or behavior that could result in an injury. Unsafe behavior or at-risk acts were then brought to the attention of the worker involved, and the applicable OSHA standard or possibly a safer method was then suggested so that the worker may proceed to work in a safer manner.

The functional separation of safety from operations also tends to focus the bulk of the safety practitioner’s improvement interventions on the worker in order to improve safety outcomes. The traditional interventions have included rewriting or modifying safety program elements, training or retraining the workers, emphasizing certain aspects of the program, making certain program areas a priority, greater emphasis on audits and inspections, incentive programs or enforcing disciplinary measures. These interventions work to some extent, but eventually they all plateau. More importantly, they almost never achieve lasting improved results.

Source of the Risk of Injury

It is a fact that construction is an industry in which workers suffer more accidents that result in injuries and fatalities than many of the others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers suffer thousands of injuries and hundreds of fatalities on construction sites annually. The risks of injury at work could be attributed to:

  • Bad luck
  • The physical work environment being unsafe
  • Some deficiency on the part of the worker
  • Shortcomings in the operational means & methods used

Let us address bad luck. This means that no one could have done anything in order to avoid having the unfortunate event occur with the resulting outcome. This is rather difficult to accept. In the previous article that is mentioned, we discussed two major studies of accidents. In the second one, Frank Bird reviewed over 1,700,000 accidents and he found that about ninety five percent were attributable to employee action and about five percent were attributable to physical conditions. There were not any accidents found that were attributable to bad luck.

The existence of hazardous physical conditions and their prevalence will vary depending on the industry. Construction is a case in point. A building or structure under construction may possibly change its configuration on a daily basis because of new work being put in place. This may create situations where the physical state of the work may be hazardous to someone working in or around it.

Since OSHA standards are primarily focused on worksite conditions, then such exposures should be identified and addressed before workers are exposed to them. The problem is that such hazards may be the result of supervision’s plans, selected means and methods, task assignment or just a function of the work as it progresses. Another important factor is the fact that the safety practitioner may visit the job only once a week or even once a month. So, if this person is to find and address such hazardous physical exposure, they would have to be on site just about all the time, which is impractical. This would suggest that the project staff ought to pay attention to the potential risks integral to the selected means and methods.

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