Tension with safety? Defuse it together

Best bet is respectful communication

If your workplace is downsizing, don't be surprised if this causes some tension between occupational health and safety.

"There may be fear about the perception of duplication of services by administration, and a decreasing need for health and safety services due to a reduced workforce," says Dawn Stone, RN, a Fullerton, CA-based nurse practitioner and former occupational health nurse at Miller's Brewing Company, University of California — Los Angeles' Occupational Health Facility, and Northrop.

Your best bet to defuse tension is respectful communication. "Seek to understand what each team member brings to the situation, so that collaboration can truly occur," she advises.

It is also important that the work of the occupational health team is visible and known to the workers and administration. "Sharing success stories at meetings, and publishing results of the improvements made by safety, can provide a sense of accomplishment," says Stone.

This will also illustrate the value of maintaining occupational health and safety services when downsizing decisions are being made. "Offering a program to reduce stress within the workforce may be sensitive and timely, too," she says.

Work as a team

Occupational health professionals at PeaceHealth's facilities, which include both hospitals and medical clinics, identify Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance issues using a comprehensive assessment tool. The tool includes a survey of the physical environment, observations of staff at work, and questions for staff.

"The observations of work practices and interviews with staff allow us to determine their knowledge level on subjects such as fire response, hazardous chemical knowledge, emergency response, and security measures," says Lisa Rodriguez, RN, COHN, HEM, PHOR, PeaceHealth's safety coordinator.

Two approaches are used for the site surveys. Quarterly assessments are done by the department's safety representative and manager, and group assessments are done twice a year for patient care areas and annually for other areas.

The group assessments, called Environment of Care rounds, are done by leaders from environmental services, facilities and bio-medical engineering, environmental/life safety, safety, security/emergency preparedness and executive management.

"During the rounds, the group has time to hone in on the special areas that they represent, to assess for any compliance or regulatory gaps," says Rodriguez. "There is immediate verbal feedback given to department leadership."

The ability to have department management or leadership accompany the team and discuss issues has been very powerful for both sides. Working together has brought a deeper understanding of the functions performed in each department.

"The relationships that I develop with my departmental safety reps and department management are crucial," she says . "They need to know my expectations of them."

Managers review injuries with their staff, and enlist Rodriguez' help to work on prevention strategies. The safety rep's role is to perform the self-assessments for the department, and identify new hazards in the department.

"The more that the employees who do the work understand about the safety program, and the importance of their participation, the better the chance at improving the safety in the department," she says

For more information about improving the relationship between occupational health and safety, contact:

• Lisa Rodriguez, RN, COHN, HEM, Safety Coordinator, PeaceHealth Oregon Region. Phone: (541) 222-2539. E-mail: LRodriguez@peacehealth.org.

• Dawn Stone, RN, Fullerton, CA. Phone: (714) 516-2695. E-mail: dawnstonenp@yahoo.com.