We often receive questions about how to improve workplace safety. Questions range from “Should I require PPE?” to “What type of machine guards do I need?” The answer to each of these, as well as the question of how to have an effective safety program, is made up of three key components:
How can you fix what you don’t know is broken? You can’t. That’s why assessment is the first step in safety improvement.
To complete a risk assessment for your company, you first need to verify the risks that can impact employee safety. Initially, most companies consider the following:
Once you have identified the big picture risks, you need to quantify them. Some companies find it difficult to quantify risks, especially if they haven’t had many injuries. You can use the loss history and claim information your insurance carrier provides to look for trends. If you notice specific injury types with higher frequency or a disproportionate number of injuries in one department, then these are areas to focus on. If you haven’t had many injuries, consider the number of employees exposed to the risk and the potential severity of the injury when quantifying.
Next, prioritize the areas of concern based on total risk and company values. The low hanging fruit may be easier to tackle, but is it best for the overall company culture?
Now you are ready to consider controls. As a best practice, follow the safety controls hierarchy below, which lists methods of control from most effective to least effective:
You always want to start by trying to eliminate the risk or hazard. If the risk is gone, there is no injury potential. For example, if employees are injured when lifting large or awkward sheets of raw material, consider ordering the sheets in smaller sizes that are easier to safely handle. In other scenarios, substituting a less hazardous chemical or less hazardous process for the current operations might be an option.
If you can’t find a safer substitution or eliminate the risk, the next best solution is engineering controls. For example, if employees are constantly climbing ladders to grease equipment, consider investing in an automated grease dispenser. Sounds simple, right? Most of the time, engineering controls are a bit more complicated and can seem cost prohibitive initially, but they are more likely to prevent injuries.
If you're unable to get rid of the hazard, find a substitute, engineer it out, or control the risk in any other way, consider personal protective equipment (PPE). Although, safety glasses, hearing protection, and safety shoes should be considered the last line of defense, since the hazard still exists and the PPE must be used appropriately to be effective.
Controls can be short term, long term, or a combination of both. Short-term controls, such as PPE or administrative controls, may be put in place until a long-term engineering control can be purchased and installed. If the risk is considered a high priority based on the likelihood of incidents or severity potential, don’t wait. Determine the best way to control it now and in the future.
You know the risk, you know where you want to focus, and you have put controls in place—all good? Maybe. You need to evaluate the controls and outcomes to make sure the solutions were effective and didn’t cause an unforeseen negative consequence. Sometimes, even with the best planning, something is put in place that just doesn’t work—or worse, it causes a bigger risk than what you were trying to control. Monitoring should lead to subsequent adjustments to strategies based on outcomes. That’s why you need to verify that the controls worked and the risk is now at an acceptable level, essentially closing the loop on the entire process. Without proper evaluation, you may not know the full impact of your control efforts.
Effective safety programs are highly dynamic and regularly include risk assessments, implementation of higher-level controls, and evaluation of work completed. Following these three key steps can help you improve your safety program too.