Make safety changes with employee's input

Correct reported concerns immediately

You may be overlooking a simple, no-cost way to dramatically improve workplace safety: employee input.

"If an institution takes an adversarial approach to safety-related concerns by employees, then employees may not feel comfortable coming forward with information about workplace safety," says Scott Patlovich, safety manager of environmental health and safety at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Employees may be unaware of the channels in which to relay their safety concerns, such as a phone number, web site, or designated contact person, adds Patlovich. "We encourage all employees to come forward with any and all safety concerns, at any time, with no consequences or repercussions," he says. "We provide an easy way for them to contact us to relay this information, and we make all attempts to address the safety concerns in a timely and efficient manner."

Office phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and office locations for safety staff members are listed on the company's web site and on emergency postings that are on display throughout the university, says Patlovich. In addition, a main contact phone line is answered by a live person on business days from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and an emergency phone line pages an on-call staff member if it is at night or during a weekend or a holiday. "Although I do not readily advertise it on the web site or on our postings, many of the folks here even have my cell phone number," says Patlovich.

All employees need to accept responsibility for working safely by pointing out hazards to other employees and managers and coming up with ideas for continuous improvements in safety, says Robert D. Johnson, CIH, CSP, senior manager of environment health and safety operations for Pitney Bowes, a Stamford, CT-based provider of mailstream solutions. "It is difficult to definitively state that any single change prevented an injury. How do you know what didn't happen? However, we can say that addressing employee safety concerns in a timely manner most certainly has a positive effect upon overall injury statistics," says Johnson.

To encourage employees to report safety concerns, do the following:

  • Ask about concerns during safety surveys.

To identify unsafe conditions before an injury occurs, safety specialists at the University of Texas Health Science Center conduct safety surveys at least once a year for every area, with higher hazard areas surveyed monthly, reports Bruce J. Brown, MPH, CBSP, CHMM, ARM, director of environmental health & safety.

Surveyors ask employees about safety concerns and use a checklist to determine if any deficiencies exist in a work setting, such as trip hazards, ergonomic conditions, lighting conditions, electrical safety, fire safety, and indoor air quality.

Safety Survey Steps

The frequency of inspection for each area is determined based on the work performed in each location. For example, a basic lab using chemicals and non-infectious bacteria will be surveyed once per year, whereas labs that work with radioactive materials will be surveyed twice per year to comply with regulatory license requirements. Safety specialists then are assigned to survey the areas.

Specific areas are identified that need to be surveyed. For example, office areas are identified and then segregated from laboratory areas for the purpose of performing the appropriate survey.

Prior to performing the survey, the safety specialist prints a survey report history with previous deficiencies, a list of laboratory personnel including the person in charge, lab personnel training history, and a checklist of safety-related questions. [See sample Laboratory Safety Evaluation Record .] The safety specialist then will perform the survey, which is often an unannounced visit.

During the survey, the safety specialist goes through the checklist of safety-related items looking for items of non-compliance. Any deficiencies are noted and recorded, with findings verbally communicated to laboratory personnel. Safety concerns are solicited from laboratory personnel.

An attempt is made to correct safety deficiencies on site at the time of the survey when possible, or at least assist the lab with compliance. If deficiencies cannot be corrected, the responsible parties are notified, such as Facilities Operations for facilities-related issues.

The safety specialist records the findings of the survey in the database. The deficiencies recorded that are not resolved at the time of survey are assigned a time period for follow-up so they can be revisited, to ensure corrective actions have been accomplished. A deficiency letter is then generated and sent to the principal investigator who notes the deficiencies found and the corrective actions taken or to be taken by the lab or other responsible party. The laboratory then has 30 days to respond with corrective actions for which it is are responsible. Safety specialists follow up within 60 days to determine status of corrective actions if there is no response within this time period.

Source: The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

"If possible, the safety concern is corrected on site at the time of the survey," says Brown. "Otherwise, we facilitate correction by relaying the issue to an appropriate party for resolution."

Employees have reported poorly marked stair treads, freshly mopped bathroom floors without a warning sign, high noise areas, lack of knowledge about the proper type of protective gloves to use for a specific chemical, improper use of extension cords, and use of office space heaters as potential fire hazards, say Brown.

Employee safety concerns have prevented serious injury many times, says Patlovich. For example, a new guard was installed on a piece of machinery after an employee reported that the old guard had broken off, which exposed a hazardous moving part.

Employees also reported that the laboratory was storing combustible materials too close to fire suppression sprinkler heads, so these were relocated. Another report from animal care personnel involved several cages with old castor rollers that were becoming difficult to roll. "Since ergonomic injuries such as back and shoulder strains are prevalent amongst this group from moving the heavy equipment, we quickly acted to purchase new castors to replace the old ones," says Patlovich.

  • Include employees in safety committees.

At Pitney Bowes, employees at all levels voice concerns at safety committees, says Johnson. In addition, "daily huddle" meetings are held in small groups within several of the company's organizations, he says. "During these huddles, safety is often one of the primary topics for discussion," he says.

Recently, employees proposed changing a process that required workers to bend over a wire container and lift objects from the bottom of the container more than 1,000 times per shift, which resulted in possible overexertion injury. "Our employees proposed eliminating the wire containers and replacing them with a chute at waist level, which eliminated the bending from the process," says Johnson. "This was an effective elimination of a safety hazard and an improvement in efficiency."

  • Pay employees for safety ideas.

At Ideal Jacobs, a Maplewood, NJ, printing company, employees are motivated to report safety concerns because they see that when something is reported, it gets fixed immediately, says President and owner Andrew Jacobs. For instance, a worker noticed that boxes storing metal strips were vibrating during the die-making process, so that the sharp pieces could potentially become loose and injure someone, and a wall was constructed to prevent this.

However, possibly a bigger incentive to report safety problems is that employees who come up with a good idea are paid $50, says Jacobs. The company has 27 employees on site and will probably give out about seven awards this year, he adds.

"The better we are in health and safety, the more efficient we are and the more money we make," he says. "We spend a great deal of money making sure everything here is healthy and safe. If our people see anything unsafe, we want them to tell us immediately."

Sources

For more information on improving safety with employee input, contact:

  • Bruce J. Brown, MPH, CBSP, CHMM, ARM, Director, Environmental Health & Safety, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, 7000 Fannin, Suite 1200, Houston, TX 77030. Phone: (713) 500-8100. E-mail: bruce.j.brown@uth.tmc.edu.
  • Andrew Jacobs, President and Owner, Ideal Jacobs, 515 Valley St., Maplewood, NJ 07040. Phone: (973) 275-5100. Fax: (973) 275-5161. E-mail: acj@idealjacobs.com.
  • Robert D. Johnson, CIH, CSP, Pitney Bowes, Senior Manager, Environment Health and Safety Operations, One Elmcroft Road, Stamford, CT 06926. Phone: (203)-536-5000. E-mail: robert.johnson1@pb.com.
  • Scott Patlovich, Safety Manager, Environmental Health & Safety, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, 7000 Fannin, Suite 1200, Houston, TX 77030. Phone: (713) 500-4193. E-mail: scott.j.patlovich@uth.tmc.edu.