The State of Workplace Safety

There has been a lot of discussion in Safety publications and online forums about how to influence the Safety Culture within an organization. This implies that a strong Safety culture is elusive for most safety professionals. A multitude of articles and blog posts on Safety Culture demonstrate that the safety professional is often at odds with the goals of the employer, eventually settling for whatever the organization decides the safety culture will be. As a result the culture of safety is nothing more than a reflection of the corporate culture, making the concept of a separate Safety Culture evasive and unrealistic. This makes sense in the respect that senior management dictates corporate culture and each operational element is a reflection of the organizational culture.

Most agree that the elements of a strong safety culture involve a strong management commitment that places safety at the top of other operational elements, including production. Success stories almost categorically reveal that only committed organizations will make a connection between the conflicts of production over safety. Not everyone in an organization may agree, but the collective consciousness can easily overwhelm individual concerns, and the outlier who believes otherwise is more likely to be silenced, or eventually acquiesce for their own job security.

From its humble beginnings OSHA, in conjunction with NIOSH, MSHA, ANSI, and others set safety standards and policies. Not long after OSHA’s creation, a political movement in the U.S. started a public dialogue of less government and fewer regulations, considered to be assaults against the business community. The consequence has been a consistent defunding of OSHA over the past 40 years. Cal/ OSHA was even eliminated in the 1980’s, and not revived again until the early 90’s. As a result, OSHA has been in a position of justifying its existence ever since, as indicated by the paucity of new standards over the past 20 years, and the failure to effectively fund the agency.

Because OSHA writes and enforces the rules, it has become an enforcement agency, perceived as punitive in their dealings with industry. As a consequence, many companies and safety professionals view the safety professions as a regulatory compliance officer. Maybe this is where the term Safety Officer originated? How many other corporate functions are referred to as “Officer”? Since most adults do not respond well to threats of punishment, and naturally perceive the Safety function as an enforcer, the safety professional is in a compromised position.

In the first place, the premise of an enforcement officer leads to an Us vs. Them scenario, pitting Safety against Production. Even in large companies where safety is highly valued, the Safety program must align with the organization’s goals and objectives, which in most private industries involves a profit motive. When injuries and incidents affect profitability then Safety gets more attention. And when injury rates drop to an acceptable level, then there’s a tendency to think nothing else needs to be done or that the organization is preventing injuries, and the Safety program is considered successful. This leads to Safety being managed according to OSHA versus best management practices for achieving a safe workplace. My conclusion is that most safety programs across America fit into a nice tidy box and look the same. The same is true of safety training presentations. This may be why many, if not most OSHA training presentations tend to look generic and irrelevant to any specific operation.

Experience reveals that OSHA and other regulatory bodies discourage site-specific and creative programs, and enforcement inspections require that written programs mimic the regulations, even going so far as to enforce the use of exact language from the regulations, which strictly follow agency guidelines and formatting. Precise mimicry of the regulations and guidelines makes the program compliant. But does this mean the workplace is safe, or is it simply in compliance? Most safety professionals of various disciplines agree that compliance and a safe workplace are mutually exclusive. If this is true then what must be done to change it?

The reality is that few people read safety documents unless required, a handful pay attention in training, and the employer is led to believe this is the way things are meant to be. As a result, Safety as a task-driven function and is often perceived as a necessary evil instead of an asset to the organization, further diminishing the value of a good safety professional and a good program.

As a consultant I am increasingly concerned of the paucity of useful site-specific information in programs when on audits and program reviews. The most obvious outcome of this is that employees tend to know little about risk and hazard awareness, and often have no idea what useful information to derive from the trainings. The biggest drawback is that the message gets limited reinforcement by the organization, often leaving the Safety Officer (there’s that term again!) to be in a position of continually selling safety to their organization and their employees. This is similar to OSHA having to justify its existence in each year’s budget cycle.

The Safety professional enforces OSHA’s rules, and in the process paints them into a corner that rarely involves being a strategic partner to the organization. In other words, this is a niche function that serves as insurance against regulatory liability. The Safety Culture will thus resemble the organization’s perception of Safety as a compliance function, and one that contributes peripherally to the future of the organization.

Until safety professionals are able to break free of being compliance specialists and instead become strategic partners to their employers and clients, the field will continue to be perceived as a necessary evil and will not make a difference in the making for a safer workplace.

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