Management's Role in Hazard Identification

Management teams own the responsibility of learning and applying safety standards and regulations in their workplaces and to educate all employees in same.  And employees are responsible for understanding – and following – safe work practices.  It shouldn’t take a safety professional or even a safety committee to identify and control hazards – all employees should be empowered to do so.  After all, hazard recognition and control is part of “doing the job right”.  So why is it often difficult for employees – and managers – to recognize hazards?  “It’s not my job” and “someone else will take care of it” are dangerous assumptions we often hear with respect to hazard identification. 

So, how can Management empower all employees to be “hazard identification experts”?    

First, make sure rules and regulations are understood and correctly applied.  There are a number of performance standards promulgated by OSHA that are general in nature, and specifics as to their application is found in other standards, such as ANSI (American National Standards Association).  A good example of this is the standard dictating that “suitable facilities for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and body shall be provided within the work area for immediate emergency use” where there is potential exposure to “injurious corrosive materials” (29CFR1910.151c).  In this case, ANSI Z358.1 is referenced for specifics as to type of facility, water temperature, location, etc.

Secondly, leverage the talents and experience of your safety professionals.  Deploy them to teach others to recognize and control hazards.  Don’t rely on your safety pro to be “Hector the Inspector”.  Spread the wealth and involve as many employees as practical.

Third, focus on “safe production” rather than production alone.  How many charts do we see that tout the number of cases produced per hour, instead of including safety in the mix?  Rather than a stand-alone number of days without an injury, how about the number of cases produced injury-free?  Some companies translate their Workers’ Compensation costs to production metrics.

Finally, there are only three opportunities to recognize hazards…before, during, and after employee exposure (when it’s too late).  Emphasize pre-planning, permitting, blueprint reviews, risk mapping, and new product/process/equipment reviews as means to identify hazards before employees’ exposure to them. Utilize specific hazard recognition techniques, such as ten-second drills (focusing on employee behavior), out-of-sight hazards (contained within storage places), and the two-key-question technique, as follows:  the first question one asks oneself is, “Does anything look different?”  For example, if there is a guard missing or a section of handrail missing, questions should be asked as to why.  The second question to ask oneself is “Could anyone be hurt?”  If the answer is yes, then control and correct the hazard immediately.

Many safety professionals and managers alike are quick to identify injury causes as “unsafe acts”, when in many cases effective root causes analysis will demonstrate that management system failures are likely contributing to the so-called unsafe acts.  In my experience, employees will find a way to get the job done despite the hurdles we (as managers) place in their way, such as insufficient tools, resources, or time to safely perform a task.  Often managers themselves don’t model safe behavior, and as such demonstrate a complete lack of commitment and leadership.  Other times, managers fail to reinforce safe work practices, preferring to focus solely on production numbers.  Finally, there could be a shrug of the shoulders while they embrace the notion of “there’s risk in everything we do, it’s part of the job”.

The optimum safety culture will “bake safety in” to its work practices as the “right way to get things done”.  Make sure that your company is pursuing such a culture.  Time spent before employee exposure to hazards is much more productive than after exposure, when an injury takes valuable time and attention away from your business and causes personal pain and aggravation to your employees.