By: Thomas Carson
I was talking with my favorite safety association Executive Director last week about safety in the time of pandemics and the different possible directions organizations could take as we emerge from lockdowns and begin moving back to work.
She believes there is a real possibility that as everyone is absorbed by all things COVID-19, concerns over day-to-day safety hazards may be pushed to the backburner. I can’t disagree with that assessment – it is easy to fixate on the single monster we can see and neglect the others when they are not in front of us.
Thinking about our conversation later, it occurred to me that this is kind of a metaphor (sadly) for many safety programs. In these environments, when a serious accident results from flawed fall protection procedures, or a worker is electrocuted in a confined space setting, that ends up being where the bulk of the safety resources will be focused until the next unplanned episode. I think the same dynamic exists when a safety program is focused largely on OSHA compliance without a foundational goal of creating a safe work environment. This is the operating equivalent of only working on equipment when it breaks, rather than implementing scheduled, pro-active maintenance. In both cases, unplanned failures are more frequent and more expensive. What these organizations may have in common are safety cultures that are largely reactive.
Even more interesting to ask is do organizations with reactive operating procedures also have reactive safety programs? Do organizations with pro-active maintenance and quality systems also have pro-active safety systems. For the member of our reader community who decides to make that their research topic for a graduate degree, you are most welcome.
There is no reason for this divide between operational functions. Standards such as ISO 45001, OSHA’s VPP and PTASP all include provisions that link pretty clearly to operations, in particular the focus on continual improvement. Even more important are provisions that require all workers affected by processes or procedures be consulted so that they may participate in developing acceptable and effective solutions.
Two of Sospes’ core beliefs are that safety should never be a silo, and engaged workers make our workplaces safer and more productive. When your operating culture embraces these themes, safety improvements, which are frequently operating improvements, become much more pro-active and these environments become provably safer and more efficient than reactive environments.
We need to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously and follow appropriate guidelines as outlined by OSHA and the CDC – you can find helpful links on our resources page here. But we should also be aware of the danger signs of on overly reactive operating environment. Proactive systems allow us to take better care of each other, which is what we should all be doing now.
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