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Improving Safety on Your Site Requires Empowering Workers

Since its creation almost 50 years ago, OSHA’s mission has been to guarantee all workers the right to a safe workplace by ensuring that employers provide an environment free from recognized hazards. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Each year, over 5,000 workers are killed on the job, with almost 1,000 of them being construction workers. Almost 900,000 workers are injured on the job each year, and about 80,000 of them work in construction. Even more suffer from occupational illnesses like silicosis, asbestosis, work-related cancer and hearing loss. OSHA has never had proper funding or enough inspectors to complete their mission, and it’s not even close. The AFL-CIO estimates that with current funding and staffing levels, it would take OSHA 165 years to inspect every workplace just once.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

Despite the hopes we had when OSHA was established, we can’t rely on the government to ensure our jobsites are safe. Employers are ultimately the ones responsible for workplace safety and health. Most take this responsibility seriously. They hire safety directors, give toolbox talks, do walkaround inspections and follow the rules to the best of their ability. Other companies, particularly smaller ones, don’t have the expertise, especially when it comes to issues like health hazards. Some choose to cut corners on safety and health to underbid their competitors and win their next contract. These companies are operating under the radar, with their fingers crossed that an employee won’t be killed and they won’t face an OSHA inspection. Many times, OSHA isn’t made aware of unsafe working conditions until it’s too late.

“While safety on a jobsite is the responsibility of the employer, management can’t do it alone,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Safety managers and other safety staff are often stretched thin, responsible for many jobsites over a wide area. Successful safety programs find ways to involve and empower frontline workers and their supervisors and turn safety into a team effort.”

A recent publication from the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) recommends creating a safe worksite by improving the “safety climate” on the job. Safety climate is a reflection of how much safety matters to management. It’s indicated by how comfortable workers feel about raising safety issues. For more about assessing safety climate and building safety culture, see our Lifelines article from January 2017.

We often say, “Either you find safety hazards or they find you.” Frontline workers will be the first to find safety hazards. If they are reluctant to speak up or worried they will be blamed for slowing the job down, the problem won’t get fixed and someone will get hurt. The first step in developing an effective safety program is giving workers the power to identify and fix safety problems without fear of repercussions. They should be active participants in the company’s safety program. There are many ways companies can encourage worker participation including: safety and health committees, encouraging the reporting of hazards and rewarding reporting, soliciting workers’ opinions through anonymous surveys and having workers lead safety activities like toolbox talks, JSAs and act as competent persons on site.

All workers on site need to be given the authority to stop unsafe work when they see it and get it corrected. Many companies say they give workers such authority, but the reality is that workers often do not feel supported and are reluctant to exercise it. Stopping work to prevent a safety problem should be rewarded, not discouraged or frowned upon. Every worker should be knowledgeable about the hazards, able to identify dangerous situations and have the right to stop the job to prevent an incident.

The other way workers can actively participate in the company’s safety program is by reporting close calls (i.e., near misses) as well as incidents. A close call is almost an accident or incident. No one gets hurt, but someone very well could have. While accidents are rare on most jobsites, close calls are much more common. Any company that truly wants to prevent accidents has to encourage reporting of close calls. Close call reporting gives companies much more data to direct prevention activities. Close call reporting is much more difficult than reporting incidents because people have to get past the idea that “Nothing happened, so why waste time investigating it?” But the information you collect can be invaluable to the safety program and the prevention of future injuries.

The AIHA guide, “How to Improve the Safety Climate on Your Construction Site,” provides details on how to encourage worker participation, empower workers to refuse unsafe work and report close calls. Next month, we’ll review some of the other ways discussed in the guide that management can improve safety climate on their jobsites.

[Scott Schneider]

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