Employee Safety at Work: Make It a Priority

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When Paul O’Neill started as the Alcoa CEO in 1987, the aluminum manufacturing giant was in trouble. Several of its recent product launches had failed. Investors wanted to hear how O’Neill planned to turn the company around.

When he gave his first speech, O’Neill didn’t discuss new revenue streams or cost-cutting measures. He chose an unusual topic: worker safety. One investor ran out of the room to tell his top clients to dump Alcoa stock. "I ordered them to sell their stock immediately, before everyone else in the room started calling their clients and telling them the same thing,” the investor said.

“It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career." By the time O’Neill retired, Alcoa’s net income had grown to five times what it was when he started.

Workers missed 1.86 days per 100 employees due to injury in 1987; by 2012, its lost days rate had dropped to 0.125. The quest to improve worker safety pushed Alcoa to improve its manufacturing processes. It also revealed ways that current processes were creating suboptimal aluminum products. What started as a focus on safety led to better processes, better products, and higher profits for Alcoa.

Improving occupational health and safety isn’t just the right thing to do from a human perspective; it’s a smart investment in the future of any company. Businesses that make safety a priority are businesses that succeed.

Start With OSHA Compliance

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has guidelines in place for sanitation, first aid, hazardous materials, ventilation, personal protective equipment, and safety exits. Following those guidelines is the best place to start when improving occupational health and safety at any company. Especially as failure to comply with OSHA guidelines can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Additionally, in companies with a unionized workforce, safety requirements are often part of worker contracts, and failure to protect workers can lead to litigation and compensatory damages.

Ameen Khwaja, entrepreneur and contributor to Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Start Your Own Business” book series, says insurance companies can be great resources for businesses looking to boost their safety programs. Most insurers are happy to visit sites and provide insights into safety and OSHA compliance; after all, when businesses have fewer injuries, they file fewer claims and keep insurance costs down for everyone. He also recommends talking to local chambers of commerce because many offer safety seminars and literature, sometimes for free.

OSHA compliance, however, is only a starting point. When a glaring safety issue exists, even if specific laws or regulations don’t cover it, it still exposes businesses to liability. In addition to following the letter of the law, businesses need to use common sense to address safety issues. If needed, companies should consider hiring consultants that can identify obstacles to workplace safety and provide remediation steps.

Offer Occupational Health and Safety Training

Hiring occupational health and safety experts to deliver occupational safety training isn’t ever a bad idea, but it’s important to get the right training that offers the most benefit for company workers. The National Safety Council (NSC) recommends starting with a job hazards analysis, which documents each step of on-the-job tasks and the potential safety issues arising from each task. This analysis identifies the highest-risk activities, so businesses can identify immediate safety training priorities.

When delivering training, too many businesses sign people up for a seminar and assume they’ve done their job. To truly lower risk, the NSC says occupational safety training should be relevant to the job, and workers should get a chance to demonstrate the new skills they’ve learned. The lessons created should go in a sequential order that matches the order in which employees perform on-the-job tasks. Training should also be hands-on, giving workers a chance to perform tasks and engage in discussion both with instructors and with one another.

When training sessions are over, businesses should ask workers for their feedback to see if they felt the activities were relevant to what they do. Incorporating employee feedback is crucial to making ongoing improvements to training quality. If workers say the training was ineffective — for example, too much classroom lecture and not enough on-the-job activity — then instructors should change the way they design each course so that workers gets maximum value from the training.

Make Safety an Ongoing Priority

Teaching one safety class and assuming workers have all the training they need is a risky proposition. Managers and other leaders should follow up with department heads, foremen, and other supervisors to see whether workers are implementing the training they’ve received. If a worker performs a task in an unsafe manner, coaching or retraining should happen immediately. In-the-moment assistance is far more effective than waiting for injury to occur.

Whenever possible, workers should take ownership of occupational health and safety. Some businesses form safety committees on sites or within plants — committees run by workers, not by managers. They become resources for their colleagues when it comes to safety issues, and they can also report issues, like poor equipment function, before those issues lead to injuries. Because they’re closest to the actual work, they become valuable eyes and ears when it comes to safety issues.

When employees make a commitment to safety, they should be rewarded. Businesses should track key performance indicators related to occupational health and safety, such as injury rates, lost time for injury and illness, and severity of workplaces injuries or illnesses associated with work activities. Facilities or departments that make notable improvements should receive incentives or awards, including individual recognition for leaders and top performers. Human resources can incorporate safety into annual performance evaluations, and they give workers the confidence to report issues without fear of retaliation.

Safety: Putting People First

Many businesses discover, like Alcoa did, that the quest to improve safety leads to better production outcomes and lower costs related to injury and illness. But most importantly, a safety focus communicates something important to workers: It shows their employers value their health and well-being.