By: Thomas H. Welby Published: December 2010

Safety Policy: Maintaining Workplace Safety in Difficult Economic Times

For those of us operating small businesses, it’s not easy, as 2010 winds down, to avoid mixed emotions.  Those of us whose businesses have come through the past two, difficult years in good shape have much to be thankful for.  Yet, all of us have friends, clients and colleagues, many with exceptional talent and experience, who are struggling.  Pundits’ predictions of better times run counter to some of the economic data, as foretell unimproved, or even worsening, prospects.

If anything is certain, it’s that the road ahead is uncommonly uncertain.  In the meantime, of course, we have to steer the ship as best we can.  The theme of this series being health and safety in the construction workplace, this installment is to urge that, in setting your course, you not jettison care for the lives and the safety of your crew.

Governmental support for the goals underlying the OSH Act is looking somewhat shaky right now.  As you may know, 22 states have their own state-run OSHA programs.  (New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are all among the handful of states that allocate private-sector OSHA responsibility to the federal agencies, while administering their own state agencies for workers in the public sector).   In looking around to see how construction safety, including OSHA enforcement, is faring around the country, I am startled to see that, as many states wrestle with dire budget constraints, their OSHA programs are experiencing budget cuts, and laying off employees.  I see, also, that even in some substantial construction outfits, layoffs have reached the level of executive safety personnel.

Recalling the cartoon image of the fellow with an angel sitting on one shoulder and a demon on the other, I don’t doubt that your “shoulder demon” would be pleased if fewer OSHA employees translated into fewer inspections, and fewer citations.  Nonetheless, in your more sober moments, you’re probably  aware that safety consciousness is healthy not only for your soul, but your company’s bottom line.  Lawsuits, workers’ comp claims and lost man-hours are obvious perils, but a lack of attention to safety has additional, subtler negative impacts on your company as well.  The best workers gravitate to safer companies, and safety and production in reality go hand in hand.

While federal OSHA has not ? yet ? shown signs of fiscal distress or diminished enforcement activity, in broad terms it may well be that, in the next years, governmental attention to workplace safety and health will trend downward.  And, even if the economic optimists prove to be correct, you’re probably not counting on having money to burn over the next few years.

What, then, can you do, as a construction executive facing budget constraints, to maintain high health and safety standards within your company?  Leadership, transparency, communica­tion, employee involvement, improved liaison with OSHA (and with any labor organizations representing your employees) and emphasizing the basics are all elements of an effective strategy.

 “Leadership” can mean a lot of things in this context, but one essential is that, come what may, employee safety and health must always be an agenda item.  Construction is inherently dangerous, so safety is a challenge in both good times and bad.  Generally, a company’s safety record reflects the owners’ attitude that the lives and the well-being of the rank-and-file are, or are not, important.  If your company has less work, has undergone layoffs, or has lost key safety or other supervisory personnel, you’ll be doing extra planning in any case.  You need to include an evaluation of what impact changed circumstances will have on safety, and what adjustments might be considered to ensure that any adverse impact is kept to a minimum.

By “transparency” I mean openness concerning safety issues and planning.  If you’re operating with 60% fewer employees than you had three years ago, and your safety director has been laid off, there’s no use pretending that you’re not facing challenges.  These days, most employees appreciate that keeping their job, not to mention keeping their employer afloat, requires added effort on their part.  I’m an advocate of giving field supervisors as much training and responsibility for safety as they can handle.  You should meet regularly with managers and supervisors to discuss safety issues generally, and accidents and near-miss occurrences in particular.  Encourage them to take responsibility to report whatever problems they observe.

“Communication” and “employee involvement” mean that the rank-and-file should be made aware that safety remains a top concern, but requires greater alertness and responsibility on their part.  More broadly, communication means reaching out to people outside your company who may be able to assist you in making your workplace safer, while conserving money.

To give just a few examples, if yours is a union shop, your employees’ union may have training or other resources to offer.  Shop stewards should be enlisted to assist in impressing on your employees that OSHA compliance and injury avoidance is more than ever a shared responsibility, and that while management is striving to maintain safety (and keep the company going) obvious transgressions ? e.g., failing to tie off while working aloft, and especially such irresponsible conduct as fighting, drug or alcohol use on the job, or stunt-driving company vehicles ? cannot be tolerated.

Another potential resource is your workers’ compensation carrier.  Many carriers will evaluate your workplace for hazards, go over OSHA and N.Y. Labor Law standards that apply, and help you develop or improve your health and safety program.  That’s definitely worth a phone call.

Finally, stress the basics.  OSHA’s construction standards are complex, but most injuries result from a relative handful of hazards (falls from elevations, trench cave-ins, struck-by accidents, unsafe scaffolds and stairwells, openings in surfaces, and working too close to live power lines).  Most of the essentials, frankly, can be summarized in a three-page checklist, embracing eye, face, foot hand and head protection and PPE, scaffolding, excavations, electrical safety, floor and wall openings, elevated surfaces and fall protection, crane safety, forklift and vehicular safety, and hazard communication.  Such a limited focus may leave you exposed to the sharp eye of a zealous OSHA inspector for items not covered, but if the basics are understood and observed by your employees, most serious accidents (and most-often-cited OSHA violations) should be avoided.

Construction companies large and small are facing the need in these times to work and plan smarter, and be more cost-effective.  Employee safety is a critical element of your company’s success. Make sure it remains on your agenda.

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