Get rid of 'accidents waiting to happen'

Some problems hide in plain sight

Do you consider work areas as part of your "office?" If you do, you will almost certainly spot some unidentified Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations.

Occupational health nurse Laurie Heagy, RN, president of the Berks County Pennsylvania Association of Occupational Health Nurses, recalls that a subtle, but easily visible violation was spotted during one of her walk-throughs.

"The autoclave instrument solution is in a marked container. But when you pour it in the tray to disinfect, we did not have a label on the steel tray. So the solution was not identified and 'hiding in plain view,'" says Heagy.

There is no question that walking the floor can help you identify hazards that exist out in the workplace. However, Craig Catton, an environment, health & safety coordinator for Peoria, IL-based Caterpillar's Integrated Manufacturing Operations Division, says, it's even better to find them before they present a risk to employees.

This can be done by incorporating risk assessments into the planning phase of a new process. "When we buy a new machine, redesign a workstation, introduce a new chemical, or build a new product, there is an opportunity to eliminate the hazards before they are ever introduced into the work area," he says.

Make workers your allies

No matter how many walk-throughs you do, there is no substitute for the eyes and ears of employees. The challenge, though, is getting them to report what they see and hear.

"In some cases, things are obvious, like a missing guard. But in other cases, things are more subtle," says Thomas Slavin, safety and health director at Navistar International, a Warrenville, IL-based manufacturer of trucks and diesel engines. "Too often, though, nobody says anything about it."

An employee may know his actions are dangerous or non-complaint, but feels he must take the risk in order to get the job done.

"A lot of times, something's not right but nobody has ever said anything. Everybody assumes that's the way it's supposed to be," Slavin says. "But when somebody does ask the question, all of a sudden lights go off."

If an employee is doing a lot of work with their arms above their shoulders, for instance, it may be that a work platform needs to be adjusted. "It's not a case of being an OSHA compliance expert. Just asking a few questions gets people thinking," he says.

Use these approaches to obtain employee input:

• Don't pass up a chance to connect with employees.

While out on the shop floor, Catton always makes a point of speaking to employees and the management team.

"Employees who are encouraged to communicate safety and health issues, and who feel their management will address their issues, will be more likely to report issues and potential hazards," Catton says. "If employees are engaged, you will likely find fewer health and safety hazards on the shop floor."

• Dedicate a specific time to identify hazards.

Some obvious hazards can easily be corrected by any employee, such as trip hazards from housekeeping issues or damaged tools. However, workers may do nothing to correct these accidents waiting to happen.

"Employees may continue to work with identified hazards, if they think taking time to correct the hazard will slow them down," says Catton.

For this reason, Catton recommends setting a designated time to identify hazards, such as the start of the shift or down time during the shift. "This allows workers time to focus solely on identifying and correcting potential safety issues in their areas," he says.

• Always do something when a problem is reported.

The goal is to encourage workers to continue to convey concerns. "People need to see that by bringing these things up, improvements are made in the workplace and things get done," says Slavin.

Navistar views OSHA compliance only as a "baseline," he notes. "Injury prevention, by doing a good investigation and talking to employees about what they think is unsafe, is really our focus. If you work from an injury prevention standpoint, it should take care of most of the OSHA standards," Slavin says.

• If an issue is identified and corrected, use it as an educational tool.

"The identified issue can be communicated at daily start up meetings to encourage other employees to look for the same issue in their areas," says Catton. "It is also a way to recognize the employees who helped identify and correct the issue."

SOURCES

For more information on encouraging workers to report safety issues, contact:

• Thomas Slavin, Safety and Health Director, Navistar International, Warrenville, IL. Phone: (312) 836-3929. E-mail: tom.slavin@navistar.com.