Have you ever noticed a sign posted in a workplace stating, “this department has gone 365 days without an on-the-job injury” Would you assume that this is a really safe company? Or do you think there’s a catch behind the claim? Are they safe because they are doing the right things to prevent injury or are they lucky?
In the rapidly changing environment caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic, leadership needs to access the latest reliable information and communicate with employees about steps being taken to stop the spread of the contagion. The pandemic has changed workplace safety, introducing significant stress and uncertainty. This can result in leaders doing fewer high-quality safety activities, because they are concerned they can’t answer the most pressing questions. Employee stress increases the probability of distraction when situational awareness is most needed.
On June 3, 1991, the Colorado Department of Health (CDH) was notified of a work-related burn sustained by a 20-year-old employee of a fast-food restaurant. The employee had been following the restaurant's standard procedure for cleaning exhaust filters located approximately five feet above a deep fryer. She had placed a wooden cover over three of the fryer's four bins, all four of which contained hot grease; no cover was available for the fourth bin. While standing on a chair she had placed on the wooden cover to reach and remove the filters, she fell, sustaining second- and third-degree burns over 10% of her body when she immersed her arm and shoulder in the hot grease contained in the uncovered fourth bin. She was hospitalized for 4 days and later required plastic surgery for scarring.(1)
Imagine that you’re a supervisor at a construction site, in a state where marijuana is legal. As you begin the day, you notice that one of your employees, Mike, doesn’t look like himself. His eyes are red, and he’s moving more slowly than usual. You think he might be under the influence of marijuana. Mike operates heavy machinery, and you’re worried about his and others’ safety. To play it safe, you follow company policy, have Mike get a urine test, and send him home until the test comes back three days later.
Workplace hazards can be obvious as well as hidden, with immediate impact as well as delayed consequences. Workers can slip and fall in an instant or develop lung cancer from asbestos exposure over years. Recent neuroscience research has identified new hazards that come with the limitations of just being human. The way the human brain naturally works doesn’t always mesh well with processes that aren’t designed optimally. Real, identifiable latent conditions, if left uncontrolled, can and do result in injury, illness or organizational accidents.
While moving a new car up a ramp onto a payload bed for delivery, something goes wrong. The car starts to roll back down the ramp. Workers nearby run forward and secure it. The program manager presents the workers with awards at the next all-hands meeting for their quick response, preventing the car from possible damage. Does this send the right message? Would they have gotten awards if someone’s hand or foot had been crushed in the process?
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When we think of workplace injuries, we often think of accidents—unexpected events where someone gets hurt. The danger of workplace hearing loss is that it can be so gradual that we don’t even know it’s happening. While it’s natural to be startled at an abrupt, loud noise, we can learn to ignore more consistent exposure, like a loud work area. Certain solvents and chemicals can also cause or lead to hearing loss. Impaired hearing can lead to reduced awareness, concentration, and fatigue, all of which can lead to greater risk of injury.