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Setting Priorities

The employee is the most important, and least controllable, element of any workplace safety program.

As a society, we have developed numerous organizations for protecting people’s safety. Police departments enforce traffic laws to help reduce traffic-related deaths. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) works to reduce the frequency of job-related injuries. Relatives and friends encourage each other to act responsibly. All these safety systems have a core theme: People are far too important to allow a preventable incident to harm them.

It is this understanding of importance that can be used to put things in perspective for workers when discussing workplace safety. Once a person truly understands his or her significance, he or she can work towards eliminating preventable incidents.

Avoiding Risk through Training
In order to avoid injury, an individual needs to know how to identify hazards and determine what preventive actions are needed. If training isn’t performed, one may not learn about a hazard at their location until after someone has been injured. Then it’s too late. Workers should understand hazards before they have an opportunity to occur.

At Wisconsin Lift Truck, we cover a number of safety-related topics in a class that newly hired mechanics are required to attend. One topic we strongly emphasize is working around a raised forklift mast. Before undergoing training, a worker may think, “Masts are strong and durable. An accident like that will never happen to me.” Yet occasionally, there are stories about workers who are crushed by masts that unexpectedly lower.

Accidents do happen, and a look at some numbers can put them in perspective. Consider a person who takes 10 risks per day. A risk is anything that has an opportunity to cause harm and may include walking down a staircase without holding onto the railing, talking on a cell phone while driving or forgetting to put on safety glasses while working. When you account for all the little things we do daily, this is a reasonable estimate.

The average person works 246 days in a year. That equates to 2,460 risks taken by that person in a year. When we factor the work life of a person to be 50 years, the lifetime total for risks taken in a person’s work life may be up to 123,000 (2,460 times 50). Not everyone will have the same end result, of course, but the total number of risks taken makes it very likely that a significant injury will happen. The best way to mitigate this risk level is to minimize risk-taking. Training employees helps them identify hazards and avoid the risks altogether. For our mast example, that means training the workers to secure a mast’s moving parts with a qualified chain and to test the chain before starting work.

Use Policies to Encourage Prevention
Policies are another important element of a good safety program. In fact, they are the foundation of enforceable safety programs. The policies can be used to help employees understand safety expectations and how to avoid incidents that cause injuries. Also, once the policies are understood, the supervisor can enforce them.

One policy in place at Wisconsin Lift Truck says that those working near lift trucks must wear safety-toe shoes. When working near lift trucks, having toes run over is a very real possibility. Believe it or not, I’ve had a number of employees tell me about having their toes run over, but they avoided injury thanks to the safety-toe shoes.

The average person works 246 days in a year and takes 10 risks a day. If the work life of a person is 50 years, that equates to 123,000 total lifetime risks taken.

We also have a cell phone policy that restricts the use of cell phones while driving. Operating a cell phone while driving increases the risk of having an accident. Our workers are important, and so is the safety of the general public. That’s why we created the policy. Accounting for the number of miles that some employees drive during work, the chance of an accident is high if cell phone use is unrestricted. With a policy in place, the risk of having an avoidable accident is lowered considerably, as long as people obey the policy.

The Final Piece
Written policies and training are valuable parts to an overall safety program, but they are not the most critical. In actuality, the worker is the most important element of a safety program. Policies and training are only effective if the employee makes a decision to use them.

The motivation to work safely must come from within the employee. He or she must agree that safe actions protect them. The worker must put the lock and tag on the equipment. The worker must choose to wear a seat belt while operating a lift truck. The worker must wear safety glasses.

How do you motivate them to do it? Convince them that they’re too important not to.

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It’s this realization that motivates people to follow safety programs. An employee who understands his or her importance will learn more during training sessions. They know that the details of safety will help them. This motivation will also encourage the employee to take the safe action in practice.

When the employee understands his or her importance, the role of the supervisor changes. Before, the supervisor may have been focused on being a safety compliance cop. Now, if the workers take the initiative themselves, comments about safety become just one person caring about the other. The purpose is now encouraging the safe actions for a better reason than just not getting into trouble.

One great feature about this safety kind of incentive program is that the worker won’t be motivated to mask or hide an injury. There is no reward for doing so. The reward for this program is self preservation and the preservation of people who work with them.

Again, the worker is the most important key to his or her own safety. So, tell your employees they and their safety are important. We have a common goal. We should finish each productive day with no avoidable injuries or accidents.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
david Hermann Meet the Author
David Hermann is safety director at Wisconsin Lift Truck, located in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and on the Web at www.wisconsinlift.com.

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