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Improving Safety to Improve Your Business

In March, Dr. David Michaels – who served as OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor from 2009 to 2017 – wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about worker safety and company culture. Its title, 7 Ways to Improve Operations Without Sacrificing Worker Safety, was obviously targeted toward the magazine’s business-focused audience, but it speaks to a common roadblock that safety professionals often face.

There is a perception among some in the construction industry that safety and productivity can’t go hand in hand, that you must choose one or the other. As we previously discussed in this 2016 Lifelines article, safety professionals are often asked to make the business case for safety. In other words, they’re asked to show that safety is also profitable. Both of these outlooks fail to see jobsite safety as what it can be – a driver of productivity, morale and overall company culture.

In his article, Dr. Michaels makes the argument that safety management and the success of a company’s day-to-day operations are closely linked. The challenge is getting contractors to view safety as a way to improve their business instead of an obstacle to their success. So what changes do contractors need to make, and how can they get workers on board? Dr. Michaels suggests these seven steps:

1. Start at the Top

Whether your company is a giant national firm with a CEO or a small, 10 person company operating in a single city, a commitment to safety must start at the top. For example, who receives reports of injuries or close calls on your site – do these reports stop at the Safety Manager or do they go all the way to the company’s owner? If management isn’t sending the right message, that attitude trickles down to the rest of the business, and project managers, supervisors and workers notice and act accordingly.

2. Use the Right Incentives

If your company offers incentives for keeping the jobsite safe, make sure you’re incentivizing the right behavior. Offering rewards for not having an OSHA recordable injury can create a clear disincentive for workers to report injuries, making the jobsite seem safer than it actually is. Instead, offer rewards for workers who report hazards, who make suggestions to improve worker safety and health or who successfully complete company safety trainings.

3. Avoid Blaming Workers for Injuries

Despite years of experience and training, workers can make mistakes, and injuries do happen. However, companies with strong safety programs recognize that other factors (often under the company’s control) also contribute to those incidents. As Dr. Michaels writes, “The most effective path to preventing injuries is to consider human errors as the consequences, rather than as causes, of operational failure.” Companies that follow this approach use root cause investigations not to place blame, but to determine what happened, so that other workers aren’t injured again in the same way.

4. Rethink How You Approach Injury Rates

As companies look for ways to reduce injuries, the focus often ends up on OSHA recordable injuries, lost workdays, experience modification rate (EMR) or other lagging indicators. While these metrics can be helpful, they aren’t necessarily the most useful way to reduce future injuries. Focusing solely on lagging indicators like these can also encourage the underreporting of injuries.

5. Focus on Leading Indicators

Instead of looking backwards, leading indicators attempt to measure a company’s current operations to predict and prevent injuries before they happen. What counts as a leading indicator? Ideally, companies will select or develop their own based on observing their own operations, but some examples include hazard identification, incident investigations or the amount of time it takes to abate hazards or implement safer job processes.

6. Use a Safety and Health Management System

Also referred to as an injury and illness prevention program, safety and health management systems put processes in place that detail exactly how jobsite hazards will be assessed, mitigated or abated to prevent workplace injuries. While the content of the program may vary from site to site, all successful programs involve worker participation, hazard assessment and control, education and training and a method to continually evaluate and improve the program.

7. Look at OSHA Inspections Differently

Most contractors work to avoid OSHA inspections, but Dr. Michaels takes time to point out their benefits. Jobsite inspections often lead to major improvements in safety processes, and research shows inspections actually reduce injuries that trigger workers’ compensation claims for up to four years. OSHA also offers an on-site consultation program for small businesses, which allows employers to find out about potential hazards in their workplace without triggering citations.

When companies take steps like these, it helps make safety simply a part of how work is done on the jobsite. Safety is not the job of only the Safety Manager or foremen. It is everyone’s responsibility, and it has the potential to impact every aspect of your business.

[Nick Fox]

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