Over the past few years, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National institutes of Health (NIH) have gotten a lot of attention, due to the public health threat of the pandemic. However, now that many workplaces are returning to previous operations, another agency deserves some attention: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
OSHA is the federal agency that sets and enforces safety and health standards, and ensures safe working conditions in United States workplaces. OSHA also provides training and education, and conducts inspections, to make sure employers are complying with regulations. When accidents do occur, the agency investigates them, and enforces penalties if they find regulatory violations. OSHA’s mission is to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths by promoting safe and healthy workplaces.
The Need for a Safety Reboot
Many organizations changed significantly in the last two years to implement public health measures, to address worker shortages, and to modify operations to respond to changes in both consumer demand and supply chain constraints. In this environment, key employees responsible for safety in the physical workplace may have been reassigned or moved on – highlighting the need to dust off safety plans and evaluate any gaps or needs.
For example, one large organization we work with recently held a fire drill, and quickly learned that few showed up at the designated area – most employees had no idea where to go or what to do. How did this happen?
- Many new employees started in telework mode and have never been exposed to the normal building tour and evacuation protocols that previous new employees received.
- Most of the safety monitors, who normally help people navigate an orderly departure in an emergency, moved on to other jobs or are now in permanently remote (virtual) positions.
- Safety instructions and signs had been removed during office renovations, which were completed to implement new public health protective practices – the focus on installing plexiglass meant that few people were thinking about building evacuations.
- With more people teleworking and working remotely, and with staffing shortages throughout the organization, regular fire drills and active shooter drills have fallen off the managerial To-Do list.
- At a deeper level, workforce shortages and increased operating demands led overworked managers to see safety activities as an unjustifiable use of time, given mission requirements and constraints. After all, with no recent incidents, it was hard to take people off-line for what-if activities and planning.
If you think this could happen in your organization (or you know it has already), it is probably time to introduce or refresh a safety plan – not just to meet OSHA requirements, but to take care of the workers who serve your organization each day. Unfortunately, this truly is a case where the desired outcome is – well, sometimes, nothing! A safe environment also tends to be a boring environment – but an investment of time is needed to achieve that dual goal of boredom and non-events.
The Case for Safety Planning
Here are some reasons why you should care about OSHA and its requirements:
- Safety: OSHA regulations help to prevent workplace accidents and injuries, which can be life-threatening or cause long-term health problems. This can incur higher operating and insurance costs, negatively impact morale and make worker shortages even worse.
- Health: OSHA standards address health hazards in the workplace, such as exposure to chemicals, noise and other harmful substances. For those with continued concerns about COVID-related exposures, health-related improvements can have a range of positive impacts.
- Legal compliance: Employers are required by law to comply with OSHA regulations, and failure to do so can result in fines and legal action.
- Employee rights: OSHA protects employees’ rights to a safe workplace and provides them with the ability to report safety concerns without fear of retaliation. Getting ahead of safety concerns can also positively impact employee engagement – before problems occur.
- Concrete engagement. Focusing on safety-related concerns is a concrete way to engage employees, and to enroll them in making the workplace better for everyone. This is an easy way to start a broader employee engagement initiative if you do not already have one in place.
In summary, OSHA is important because it helps to ensure that workers are safe and healthy while on the job, and it provides legal protection for employees who report safety concerns.
Getting Started with a Safety Plan
Whether you are supervisor, manager, or team member – you can make a difference when it comes to workplace safety. Here are some first steps:
- Assess the Current Baseline Situation: Begin by evaluating the current safety practices and people’s knowledge of them. Consider potential hazards or risks given the nature of the work you do, and any previous incidents that have occurred. This assessment provides a baseline for developing your safety plan. It is best to be practical and pragmatic at the stage – focusing on what is most important, instead of making an exhaustive list of all possibilities.
- Consider Likely Risks: The nature of your work, and the location of your office, can help point to the safety risks that should likely be addressed first. For example, a loud workplace deserves a renewed look at hearing protection. A construction or manufacturing environment highlights a likely need to focus on slip, trip, and fall prevention. Most workplaces should consider having evacuation and shelter-in-place plans for fires, earthquakes or other natural disasters. More and more workplaces are also considering risks from workplace violence. Taking a risk-based approach helps build buy-in, as people see the payoff for actions that seem more concrete and less abstract in the actual workplace.
- Identify Legal and Regulatory Requirements: Based on the type of work your organization does, familiarize yourself with any relevant laws, regulations and industry standards about workplace safety.
- Establish a Safety Project Plan: Establish a plan for launching or revitalizing a safety program. This could include a schedule for fire drills, a task list for procuring safety equipment and hearing protection, and an order for new building signs. Consider revamping a list of safety-related roles and responsibilities. This could also include establishing a safety committee to follow-up and institutionalizing a safety culture.
- Develop Safety Policies and Procedures: One item in your safety plan should be to develop clear and concise safety protocols that address identified risks. These policies should outline testing schedules, emergency response procedures, reporting mechanisms and employee responsibilities.
- Provide Training and Education: Consider the need for internal or outside training to raise awareness and provide the skills needed to work safely in your environment. Training should cover topics such as hazard identification, engineering controls, safe work practices, emergency procedures and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hearing protection, if applicable. Encourage employee engagement through suggestion boxes, safety newsletters or safety-related events.
- Revitalize and Publicize Reporting Procedures: Publicize any systems for team members to report safety concerns, near-misses and incidents. Establish a process for investigating incidents to identify root causes and implement corrective actions to prevent recurrence.
Finally, don’t forget about home workers, in addition to your in-office staff. If you have a remote workforce, consider the need for home work space safety assessments and investments too – plenty of people have broken toes by tripping on cords while working at home. An eye to workplace safety can help prevent entirely avoidable types of accidents.
Starting or renewing a safety plan in your organization is a proactive step towards ensuring the well-being of your employees as many adjust to new working environments. Together, these actions contribute to a culture of caring and concern, which builds goodwill for the long term.
Rebooting Safety Training
As you review or renew workplace safety initiatives, Pryor Learning offers a variety of related training courses, including:
- OSHA Outreach Training Program: This in-depth, 5-day course covers OSHA essentials.
- OSHA General Training: This one-day seminar gives an overview of OSHA requirements.
- The Safety Toolbox Series: This downloadable video provides useful and pragmatic tips and insights.
- Hazard Communication (HAZCOM) Training: This course teaches employees how to identify and handle hazardous materials in the workplace.
- Specialized Training: Different seminars cover Worker Compensation, Medical OSHA Compliance, and Recordkeeping and Retention.
Overall, Pryor Learning provides a comprehensive range of workplace safety training courses to help organizations ensure the safety and well-being of their employees. Strategic planning, project management, leadership and communications training can also be useful training programs to support your workplace safety goals.