Procedures aren’t enough to prevent accidents. The best way to improve health and safety in the workplace is to properly engineer safety into production machinery and processes.
BY SIMON FRIDLYAND
More than eight out of 10 workers (85%) rate workplace safety first in importance among labour standards, even ahead of family and maternity leave, the minimum wage, paid sick days, overtime pay and the right to join a union, according to a new study from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.
Despite widespread public concern about workplace safety, the study also found that the media and the public tend to pay closest attention to safety issues when disastrous workplace accidents occur. Even during those tragedies, the fate of workers is often overlooked, such as during the recent oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Workplace safety is too often ignored or accidents taken for granted,” said Tom W. Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey (GSS). “It is striking that coverage in the media and public opinion polls have virtually ignored the 11 workers killed by the blowout and destruction of the drilling platform.”
Questions instead focused on the environmental impact of the disaster and overlooked worker safety, Smith pointed out. But he noted that “if optimal safety had been maintained, not only would the lives of the 11 workers been saved, but the whole environmental disaster would have been averted.”
The reason for this interest is very basic. When people go to work, they want to put forth their best and come home alive and well.
Most organizations appreciate the importance of minimizing incidents and accidents in the workplace. Done properly, in order to reduce or even eliminate accidents in the workplace, companies must develop safety cultures, optimize management systems, provide legal compliance for machinery, equipment and processes, and deliver behavioural safety change programs that begin at the top of any organization and cover all employees.
Attitudes and behaviour, right across an organization, will always strongly influence the importance placed on health and safety. The goal of developing a safety culture is to instil the qualities that motivate management and workers to strive to achieve safety excellence and can be developed only if everyone works together. Within a safety culture, safety must always come first and take into consideration everyone involved.
Workers’ attitudes are also extremely important, especially those of young employees. According to information published by Youth Canada, the following statements are held true by young workers, although the reality is different.
1. “I can take risks. I won’t die.”
* In 2007, 78 workers aged 15 to 29 died in the workplace in Canada.
2. “I can handle anything. I’m young and fit.”
* Over one-quarter (25.99%) of all occupational injuries happen to workers between the ages of 15 and 29.
3. “Nothing will happen to me. I’m safe at work.”
* More people are injured on the job than in traffic accidents.
4. “I must do any job my employer tells me to do.”
* You have the right to refuse unsafe work.
5. “I am not responsible for workplace safety. This is my employer’s responsibility.”
* You are responsible for knowing and complying with all workplace regulations.
These attitudes are the documented reality of our workplaces. Just relying on procedures may not be enough to prevent accidents, especially among young workers. In my opinion, the best way to improve health and safety in the workplace is to properly engineer safety into production machinery and processes.
One should simply look at the evolution of safety. Some of you may remember an old Charlie Chaplin comedy film called Modern Times.
This film portrays Chaplin as a factory worker, employed on an assembly line. After being subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a ‘modern’ feeding machine and working on an accelerating assembly line where Chaplin screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery, he suffers a mental breakdown that causes him to run amok, throwing the factory into chaos.
These times of reckless indifference to of health and safety are now gone in Canada. However, some of our equipment 75 years from now may look as bad as that in Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Engineered solutions for the safeguarding of machinery and equipment have come a long way since those days. We can bring the future into our factories now, by engineering safety solutions. The technology to safeguard plant equipment and machinery exists today.
We just need to improve our cultural attitude towards health and safety. The interest is already there.
Simon Fridlyand, P.Eng., is president of S.A.F.E. Engineering Inc., a Toronto-based company specializing in industrial health and safety issues and PSR compliance. He can be reached 416-447-9757 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.safeengineering.ca.