I’ve asked Marc Shaye, an attorney with more than 30 years experience in health and safety matters, to be a guest blogger this week. Here’s Marc’s take on why it takes more than doing the minimum to achieve a safe workplace. A fuller version of this article appears on our website.
We all know people who will do the minimum of what it takes, just to get by. It can be frustrating when we serve on a committee with people like this, or when we share job responsibilities with them.
But where safety is concerned, just meeting the minimum may mean more than annoyance; it can mean the difference between life and death.
In my 30-plus years in workplace health and safety, I’ve encountered any number of situations where a work site met OSHA standards, but still had an accident. Serious injuries and fatalities on the job site can be devastating to employees and to the organization’s goals — even if there is no serious punishment from regulatory agencies because the requirements were met.
Let me tell you about one experience I encountered at a blood plasma facility. Because of the nature of the work, this job site was held to exacting standards that extended beyond what OSHA typically requires. This facility met those standards and routinely held safety meetings to ensure that all personnel followed procedures.
One night, just before a three-day holiday, an accident happened, killing a worker. Now this wasn’t a newcomer and it wasn’t someone who had a pattern of doing only what it took to get by. This young man was considered a “wizard” at his job — and had earned a nickname to match. He regularly scored high marks in the safety program. He was so well regarded that he was charged with teaching his fellow employees the safety requirements of operating the system.
But on this night, he disregarded a faulty pressure valve on a tank. He paid for that mistake with his life.
What an investigation found
The ensuing investigation showed that bolts were defective or missing, which caused the lid to blow off the tank, killing “the wizard.” The company had a protocol for discarding defective bolts and replacing missing ones, which was reinforced in regular safety meetings mandated for all employees. The investigation showed that the company far exceeded the minimum requirements for job safety, but that did not prevent a fatal accident.
The company had done all that it could do to prevent accidents like this from happening, but one occurred regardless. This young worker— perhaps distracted by the upcoming holiday, too familiar with the equipment or too confident of his abilities—made a split-second decision that was devastating.
This was not an isolated incident. It’s a pattern I’ve seen a number of times.
Safety policies, training and procedures can take a company only so far. The National Safety Council’s Corporate Code of Ethics encourages corporations, businesses and employees to go beyond the minimum safety requirements. The code requires businesses to make health and safety a core value for every employee, and for employees to commit to never compromise their safety or that of their fellow employees. The code is based on the belief that all injuries are preventable.
With my years of dealing with workplace safety issues, it would be easy to become cavalier about creating an environment with zero injuries. “Accidents do happen,” the adage says. We can do everything we can do to mitigate them—training, policies and procedures. But accidents don’t have to happen—if we all go beyond the minimums and commit to safe practices each and every time.