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Safety:
It's Not Who You Know, It's What You Know

By Carl Potter and Deb Potter

Many companies look at safety in terms of outcomes: their employees are either injury-free or injury-prone; their workplace has a greater or lesser number of incidents this year than last. Do you believe your workers’ actions or behaviors determine their safety? Does your company determine its safety level with a formula based on the number of personal workplace injuries or vehicular incidents your drivers had last year?

While useful in some circumstances, these types of measurements are often referred to as “lagging indicators.”  They reflect what has happened and in what quantities, but they really don’t tell the whole story of safety in your organization.

There’s another, often better, way to measure and improve workplace safety. Consider how much you and your employees know about the way everyone works. This knowledge can help everyone to work safer and to go home every day without injury.

The next time your employees sustain an injury or have vehicle incidents, even when they only experience near-misses, take the time to think about what the event reveals about the level of safety knowledge in your organization. You may be shocked at what you learn when you ask yourself and others involved in the incident these three questions:

1.      What are the work procedures related to the task you were doing at the time of the incident? For example, if a worker was injured while using a hand tool, he or she may describe what they thought was the proper procedure for using the tool, when in fact no one may have trained him or her to use the piece of equipment properly. In this case, you may learn that employees need training in the appropriate use of certain tools in order to avoid future incidents.

2.      How did you learn to do the task you were doing when the incident occurred?

Accident investigations often reveal that workers primarily learn to do their work from their peers through on-the-job training. In many industries, advances have been made over the years in technology and equipment, yet more seasoned workers may not be aware of these improvements. Sometimes these experienced, yet unaware, employees inadvertently pass along unsafe work practices to others who join their workgroup. As a result, new workers are continually trained in older, and probably less safe, work methods. If training and safety knowledge aren’t updated, dangerous situations can easily result.

3.      What can we all learn from this so that no one else experiences a similar incident?

Most people genuinely want to help their co-workers to go home every day without injury, so you will probably get good ideas and valuable information when you ask this question. Share what you learn from these interviews throughout your organization, especially with those who may face comparable circumstances, so everyone can avoid injury if a similar situation arises. You’ll discover that, in many cases, good safety rules exist, and employees understand safe work procedures, but they feel they must rush their work, so they take shortcuts that lead to injuries. When the employees involved in incidents or near-misses identify the underlying causes that result from being in a hurry, they can share with their fellow employees the lessons they’ve learned for the benefit of all.

Easy does it: Good communication is essential if the safety process is to be successful. Workers need to feel as if they are involved in a process and making a contribution to the overall benefit of their co-workers and the company, not as if they are snitches or will risk punishment for divulging what really happened when the incident occurred. Ask these three questions in such a way that the involved workers feel comfortable about sharing information with you. If they feel as if what they offer you will be used against them in any way, forget it!  They will be unwilling to speak honestly–or possibly at all–so you will lose the opportunity to learn. On the flip side, if employees trust you and believe that your questions are truly designed to uncover ways to make the workplace safer for everyone, then you will tap into a gold mine of good information. Then it is vital to pass this information on to others throughout the company in a meaningful way.

Knowledge is power! When it comes to safety, it really doesn’t matter who you know, it’s what you know. By asking these questions, you will gain knowledge that will allow you to provide your employees with an invaluable resource gleaned from the lessons learned by others. Share the information in safety meetings, employee discussions, and pre-job briefings. Be sure to assimilate it into appropriate employee training courses. When you do everything you can to ensure that employees know what they need to know in order to do their jobs safely and effectively, you’ll find that more and more injury-free workers will go home to their families every day.

Read other articles and learn more about Carl and Deb Potter.

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