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Who's At Fault? Avoiding workplace accidents

By William Atkinson | May 15, 2016
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It might surprise most people to learn that 97 percent of all unintentional injury-related deaths—and 87 percent of all medically consulted unintentional injuries—actually occur off the job.


According to the most recent National Safety Council Injury Facts (the 200-plus page compendium of injury statistics compiled annually by the NSC), there were 127,200 unintentional injury-related deaths last year, up from 91,120 in 1974. Only 3,695 (3 percent) of those occurred on the job, down from 13,500 during the same time period. The other 123,505 occurred off the job (either in motor vehicles, at home or in public).


In addition, there were 38.3 million medically consulted unintentional injuries, only 13 percent (4.9 million) of which occurred on the job. The other 33.4 million occurred off the job. Historical data was not available for medically consulted unintentional injuries.


In sum, generally speaking, people are safer on the job than they are off the job.


Research suggests that the reason many injuries and deaths occur on the job, despite the massive number of OSHA regulations introduced in recent decades, is not that employers aren’t providing safe work environments per OSHA mandates. Rather, it is because people with generally unsafe attitudes and behaviors—the ones who experience so many injuries off the job—bring these attitudes and behaviors into the workplace. These individuals are categorized as “accident repeaters.” That is, while the majority of workers are personally committed to being safe on and off the job, many employees lack that same commitment. These people have what are called “risk-taking personalities.” They are the ones who may drink to excess, take illegal drugs, operate vehicles while impaired, and engage in extreme sports on the weekends that lead to injuries and even death.


If electrical contractors (ECs) purchase low-quality, unsafe tools and equipment for their workers, injuries are likely to occur, even if the workplaces themselves are safe. As such, common sense dictates that ECs should take steps to purchase only the safest tools and equipment. Similarly, if ECs hire employees who lack mature safety attitudes and behaviors, injuries or even death are more likely to occur to these employees and possibly to their coworkers on the job, even if the workplaces are safe. As such, common sense dictates that contractors should ensure that they hire only most safety-conscious employees and then ensure they continue to work safely.


Robert Pater, managing director of Portland, Ore.-based safety consulting firm MoveSmart, understands these challenges. According to Pater, a person’s safety habits at work and at home tend to mirror each other, and these behaviors are likely to transfer to the workplace. If someone works safely on the job, that person is also likely to behave safely off the job, and vice versa.


Adding to the problem, there has been a trend in the last decade toward less direct supervision because there are more employees to supervise.


“In the past, for example, when a supervisor might have had 10 reports, that person may now have 40 or 50, so the supervisor can’t possibly see if everyone is working safely every minute of the day,” Pater said.


Workers, especially those with risk-taking personalities, are less inclined to perform the way they are supposed to on the job, since they know they aren’t being watched as much.


One way to help ensure safe behavior on the job is to make it clear to employees that, while the company has a responsibility for safety, the employees do, too.


“We provide training, correct and comfortable [personal protective equipment], tools and equipment, along with everything else that is needed to work safely,” said Patrick Galietta, corporate safety director for Newburgh, N.Y.-based Perreca Electric Co. “However, at the end of the day, everyone has to be responsible and be their own keeper by working safely all day. We expect nothing less than a full commitment. If someone can’t or won’t buy into our commitment to safety, they have to seek employment somewhere else.”


(Editor's note: Alsco has some good resources in preventing and handling accidents.)

Galietta also said that, if someone sees a safety problem, that person is expected to correct it and inform their team members so it won’t be a problem again.


Another way to improve safety behaviors at work is to identify at risk employees and focus on those for whom safety may not be the No. 1 priority. Lincoln, Neb.-based Commonwealth Electric of the Midwest, uses this strategy.


“Your normal workforce—your full-time employees—usually aren’t a problem,” said Ruben Bera, corporate safety director. “For example, we have people here who have been working with us for years, and they have completely bought into our safety culture.”


This culture is in place primarily because, simply stated, the company wants to keep workers safe. There are other reasons, such as being able to keep workers’ compensation rates low.


“In addition, you can’t even bid on a lot of jobs these days without showing proof of your safety record,” Bera said.


While the majority of full-time employees working for a company with a strong safety culture are going to engage in safe work practices, there may still be some who don’t.


“There is still going to be a segment of employees who do tend to be accident-prone,” Bera said. “In these cases, we try to educate them and give them encouragement. One of the most important things to do, though, is to enforce the existing safety rules to make sure accidents don’t happen again.”


He provided an example.


“If, as a manager or safety manager, you walk onto a job site and see someone without safety glasses, and then watch that person put the safety glasses on the moment that person sees you, you have to ask yourself: ‘How long am I going to allow that kind of behavior to continue?’” he said. “Do you wait until that person gets an eye injury or do you take action immediately?”


Granted, when you are busy, you want to be working as hard as you can, and it can cut into productivity to pull someone aside and discipline them for safety violations.


“In addition, if you don’t have a strong safety culture in place, it’s not uncommon to get pushback from supervisors and managers,” Bera said.


Still, if you don’t take action immediately, the potential for future accidents increases significantly.


Besides full-time employees who are less safety-conscious, there is a second type of worker that bears scrutiny: transient employees (sometimes known as “travelers”).


“Travelers will come [to a job], and their goal is to work as many hours as they can, because, when the job ends, they leave,” Bera said. “As such, a local company’s safety culture may not be of high interest to them.”


According to Bera, instead of trying to find new work when a job ends, some of these transient employees see the workers’ compensation system as a source of income when they are between jobs.


One possible way to reduce the potential for safety problems with transient employees is to do what some companies do with brand new full-time employees: Single them out as new employees for a while by having them wear a different colored hardhat or something similar. However, this can be a tough sell for some, especially older journeymen who have been traveling the country for years.


 

“It is important to have a strong safety culture that doesn’t tolerate unsafe behaviors.”
–Ruben Bera, Commonwealth Electric of the Midwest

 

“These are skilled people, and they may resent being singled out,” he said.


If this approach is ineffective, then reliance on a strong safety culture may do the trick.


“Again, it is important to have a strong safety culture that doesn’t tolerate unsafe behaviors,” Bera said. “We have had a few travelers tell us that they have traveled the country for years and never encountered a company that was so concerned for their safety and provided them with everything they needed in order to work safely.”


There is another benefit to having a strong safety culture: Your own employees are likely to keep unsafe co-workers in line.


Beyond these strategies, Pater offers other suggestions. One is that it is important to remember that people in management and the safety department tend to be more risk-averse when it comes to safety performance than many of 
their employees.


“They assume that all of their workers think about safety the same way that they do, and that’s not always the case,” he said.


Problems arise when you find out that not all employees are as committed to safety as you are, and you aggressively confront them. According to Pater, this doesn’t create internal commitment to safety. Rather, it creates antagonism, resistance and division. It also may cause management to try to create more “command and control.”


“You can’t ensure safety on the job with ‘command and control,’ especially since management is spread so thin these days,” he said.


Rather, the key is to get people to want to be responsible for their own safety. One way to do this is a concept Pater called “internalization.” This means getting an employee to think of safety as something they want to do for themselves, whether any of their supervisors are around to observe their behaviors or not, instead of as an external requirement.


The first step is to find out what is important to employees, and then build on that. For example, a company may have a lot of employees who like to stay active on the weekends, such as playing softball or completing yard work. Contractors can explain to them how working safely on the job will allow them to be healthy enough to remain active on the weekends.


For instance, it is not uncommon for workers to jump off the back of trucks when they are unloading, which not only increases the potential for strain-related injuries over time, but can also lead to serious falls.


“If you make a rule that they can no longer do this, there are some employees who will still do it anyway, simply because they don’t want to be told that they can’t,” Pater said.


Instead, it makes more sense to explain to employees that, when they jump off the backs of trucks, there is a lot more force being placed on their bodies.


“Explain that they probably feel that force or tension in their knees or ankles or lower back, because the force transfers to their bodies,” he said. 


Then, explain that this can lead to pain, which can eventually lead to debilitating injuries.


Doing it this way is more likely to generate compliance, because the workers will implement the safe practices for their own benefit, not because it is required by the company.


About The Author

ATKINSON has been a full-time business magazine writer since 1976. Contact him at [email protected]

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