Five best practices for plant safety in 2020

It isn’t just about the bottom line; workplace safety is about trust.

By Graeme Murphy February 5, 2020

When large corporations make the evening news after failing to prevent a safety incident, workplace injuries become a hot topic. But the cautionary tales splashed across the TV or computer screen tell only part of the story. Keeping workers safe is serious business and should be on your radar all year long.

According to the National Safety Council, 85,600 workers were injured on the job every week in 2017. And the figures for workplace fatalities are no less shocking. In 2017, it is estimated that a worker died on the job every 119 minutes. If you run a plant that requires working at heights above 4 feet, fall protection should be at the top of your list of safety concerns.

With proper planning, implementing safety systems and products well-suited for the facility pays dividends in the long run. With 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2018, there’s also evidence that investing in the development of safety standards, systems and industry-appropriate products will increase productivity in the long run and help with employee retention. Nevertheless, budget will not be the determining factor in developing a comprehensive plan.

Productivity need not come at the expense of worker safety. Moreover, nearly all accidents are preventable. Plant managers that implement the following five best practices are likely to see profits soar while reaping the long-term benefits of safety, such as higher employee satisfaction and retention rates, increased productivity and improved brand reputation.

1. Conduct regular risk assessments

The Canadian Center for Health and Occupational Safety (CCHOS) suggests the first step toward improved safety is to take a thorough look at your workplace to identify anything with the potential for causing harm. Hazards could include anything from protecting employees from falls while working at heights above four feet or traveling up and over equipment, to ergonomics and potential repetitive motion injuries, as well as exposure to harmful chemicals or extreme temperatures. Anything that affects the wellbeing of your employees should be considered.

Once hazards are identified, a thorough analysis and evaluation will determine how likely and severe the potential risks are. At that point, decisions can be made about what measures should be put in place to effectively eliminate the risks. It’s tempting to believe that your team knows best when it comes to keeping the plant safe for workers.

However, evidence suggests that inviting the perspective of an outsider, one with professional credibility in your industry and experience in safety, will be more valuable than the view from the inside. We can’t see what we can’t see. Let someone with no skin in the game help find where improvements can be made.

Most importantly, remember to use periodic risk assessment as a tool for improving outcomes, not just avoiding the worst-case scenario. By keeping the big picture in mind, you’ll automatically lower incident rates and raise profit margins. The CCHOS offers a number of checklists, tables and tips available for free on its website.

2. Focus on prevention first

Lack of fall protection is OSHA’s number-one violation and has been for the past nine years, which makes it a no-brainer for facility managers looking to increase workplace safety. Add to that the fact that 40% of workplace fatalities are caused by a fall and $70 billion is spent by employers each year on medical costs due to falls. This is evidence that fall protection should be a priority. But what if the hazard was eliminated altogether?

It’s common for plant managers to emphasize the efforts made to ensure workers are not harmed in the event of a fall or accident. Fall protection equipment such as harnesses and rescue plans are required to comply with OSHA standards, but in most cases aren’t enough to create a comprehensively safe workplace.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review in March of 2018, David Michaels, former OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor suggested that serious accidents are indicative of much larger problem. He goes on to suggest that, “Companies can be successful and safe at the same time. The reality is that virtually all workplace injuries are preventable, and safety management and operational excellence are intimately linked.”

When it comes to prevention-based safety programs, company-wide initiatives will always be more effective than isolated efforts. Proper training ensures everyone knows what to do in the event of an injury or accident. Practice makes perfect. Taking the time to act out scenarios helps employees and managers feel prepared when the unexpected occurs. People tend to react rather than respond when accidents happen, so be sure to have signs posted throughout your facility with simple and direct steps to follow when someone is injured.

Falls aren’t the only hazard to prevent on the job. Any activity that puts workers at a heightened personal safety risk is your responsibility to address preventatively. Heat exhaustion, electrical shock, chemical spill containment, vehicle and heavy equipment related accidents and proximity to dangerous machinery are common concerns at plants.

A thorough accident prevention program requires regular training, high-quality, industry appropriate equipment and a company culture that embraces safety and respect for all workers.

Employees who feel empowered to support one another in creating an environment where everyone’s safety is the highest priority are trained to use equipment safely. Those who fully understand the safest ways to fulfill their duties on a regular basis are less likely to become complacent. Keeping workers engaged and focused with supportive and attentive leadership will maximize prevention efforts. Remember that safety is about good business practice. The benefits of investing time and energy into a good safety plan include higher job satisfaction, improved corporate image and staff retention, increased productivity and efficiency and fewer costs associated with incident resolution.

3. Develop a culture of safety

In a recent podcast, The Safety Pro, Blaine J. Hoffman suggested that developing a culture of safety by demonstrating an expectation of success in every department should be at the top of the priority list for plant managers. Take the time to develop a culture of safety throughout the plant so it is clear to everyone, from C-suite executives to operators on the floor, that cutting corners and overlooking protocols will not be tolerated. By investing in new systems for communication, accountability and celebration of success at regular intervals, trust will increase, motivating growth and progress for everyone on the team. Incentivize the behaviors that exemplify a positive company culture and watch the collaborative and mutually supportive energy at your workplace flourish.

Empowering employees to support one another in reporting near misses and making suggestions for improvements creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and personal responsibility. Keep the lines of communication open and be ready to consider solutions you may have never considered before. Managers who are approachable and work to stay in close contact with their teams are much more likely to hear about what’s not working from the employees’ perspective.

Hoffman suggests that although “leaders can’t force people to develop a meaningful sense of accountability,” they can activate responsibility “by shaping an organizational culture that promotes responsibility.” Nobody wants to be an automaton. Plant managers who prioritize productivity goals over all else can inadvertently encourage unsafe behavior. If employees must break the rules to meet your expectations, people can get hurt.

In his HBR article, Michaels contends that, “To make substantial progress in injury prevention, companies must select a set of indicators that measure progress toward that firm’s chosen goals.” Unlike lagging indicators such as recordable injuries, tracking leading indicators is the most productive way to reduce the risk of serious injuries and fatalities. Leading indicators are inherently more focused on prevention and must be uniquely matched with the systems, products and processes of a facility. Examples include specific hazard identification or abatement, incident investigations and follow through. Michaels recommends starting small and adding more as your safety program matures.

Focusing on the worst-case scenario makes sense. However, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. In isolation, safety measures are at best a haphazard attempt to keep OSHA happy and business humming. By establishing a culture of safety and mutual respect throughout your company, you’ll stay ahead of preventable accidents and build a team of loyal employees.

4. Understand your responsibilities

Complying with federal and state standards for safety is no small feat regardless of facility size. In addition to industry-related safety measures, it is your responsibility to stay current on the OSHA and IBC standards set out by regulatory agencies to keep employees safe at work. Regardless of facility specifics, the General Duty Clause section 5(a)(1) of the OSHA act requires employees be provided with a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or physical harm. This general statement of responsibility remains an imperative under all circumstances and especially if the specifics of your daily operations are not heavily regulated.

For example, OSHA standard 1910.28 states that employers must provide adequate protection for all employees exposed to fall and falling object hazards. Additionally, the employer must ensure that all fall protection equipment meet criteria contained in OSHA standard 1910.29. These standards set the expectations when operators are working at heights. Codes are written to specify the requirements for guardrails, handrails, stair treads, toeboards, scaffolding, ladders and so on to provide adequate fall protection for employees. Accidents aside, disregard for these standards creates unsafe working conditions and makes a company vulnerable to fines should an enforcement officer pay a visit.

But what about the grey areas? Marine is a good example of an industry left to interpret OSHA regulations without much direction. Safe access for workers when loading and unloading in a marine environment makes compliance a little less straightforward. Gangways and loading platforms must keep workers safe, but it’s up to you to analyze your risk. Relying on experts with experience interpreting compliance standards ensures operations stay safe and efficient regardless of the industry.

Similarly OSHA’s fall protection and prevention requirements for rolling stock have been confusing and thereby consistently unenforced for decades. In an effort to remedy the lack of information available on the subject, OSHA requested input from industry leaders and addressed widespread concerns in a public hearing held in January of 2011. Although clarification is anticipated later this year, responsibility is with managements to be thorough in keeping workers safe under all circumstances. Seeking out the advice of industry leaders in safety is a wise choice as compliance is often a moving target. Consultants and those manufacturing industry-specific equipment can be valuable allies as companies work to stay current and compliant as production environments evolve.

5. Do the math

Although every incident can’t be anticipated, keeping a facility safe and compliant is not just the right thing to do, it’s also a good investment. According to the National Safety Council, the largest penalty issued to an employer in FY 2019 was nearly $1.8 million. Estimates indicate work-related injuries and deaths annually cost society $164.6 billion. It’s important to consider direct and indirect costs when evaluating how much expense is associated with an injury.

An article in the Dec. 2018 issue of Safety + Health Magazine suggests that direct costs include workers’ compensation, medical and legal costs. Indirect costs include lost productivity, hiring and training replacement employees, time and expense of conducting incident investigations, repairing damaged equipment and implementation of corrective measures.

The importance of investing time and money into a comprehensive safety program is necessary, and to reinforce this, consider the math outlined by the EHS Advisor in January of 2019. Safety managers should be prepared to clearly demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of their efforts by running the numbers ahead of time. To calculate the percentage of profit earned for every training dollar spent, it is necessary to track expenses to design, develop, administrate, execute and evaluate programs.

Similarly, you’ll want to also tabulate the benefits of prevention, including reduced labor costs and employee turnover, combined with increases in productivity, lead generation and income. According to the formula included in the article the author suggests that it is reasonable to expect that, “for every $1 spent on training, there can be a net benefit of $3. This kind of feedback and analysis can go a long way toward establishing the effectiveness of your safety training program and its value to your employer.”

Businesses that take their safety plans seriously are less of a liability and more stable for investors, insurers, clients, customers and employees. Comprehensive safety plans that include the purchase, maintenance and training of high-quality, industry appropriate equipment might cost more initially, but pay off in the long run. Choose to partner with reputable, reliable manufacturers with products that meet or exceed current OSHA compliance standards. Nothing is more important.

Ask questions and always request site visits and adequate consultation prior to the purchase of any safety equipment for your facility. Most of all, work exclusively with vendors that demonstrate excellence and experience in your industry with a thorough understanding of compliance standards specific to the facility. To set a company apart as a safe and responsible industry leader, remember that there is always more to do. Keep in mind that being OSHA compliant is the very least to be done to stay on the cutting edge. To achieve excellence, good enough is never enough. Implementation of these vital steps is the best way to reduce incidents, improve production, increase efficiency and create a workplace environment to be proud of.

Author Bio: Graeme Murphy serves on the executive leadership team of SixAxis and is vice president of business strategy and development for SafeRack. Murphy oversees business development strategy for SafeRack in addition to managing international sales operations from the SixAxis office located in Kent, England.