Nobody wants to work in an unsafe environment, but companies can often miss hazards that create preventable EHS incidents.
Most people are acutely aware that their personal work/life balance is skewed disproportionately towards the workplace. We spend a lot of time in the work environment, interacting with individuals who are colleagues rather than friends.
And while we may be familiar with the potential hazards in our own homes, the sad truth is that we are probably more likely to experience an often preventable safety issue in the buildings we work in.
No employee wants to spend their days (or nights) in an unsafe workspace. A quick glance at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website reveals a never-ending stream of citations for companies, many of which were likely avoidable.
With that in mind, here are five critical safety elements that people should be aware of in the workplace. Just as important, they should be able to speak out—whether to peers or managers—when they see these hazards arise.
1. Equipment Issues
Workplace accidents can often be attributed to two things: faulty equipment or the people using said equipment.
More often then not, a workspace can be made safer by both noticing when a machine is not operating as expected or when a person seems blissfully unaware that there is a potential accident on the horizon. Machines and operating procedures you can fix, but people have to be taught to be more observant.
And while companies can make every effort to provide a safe work environment, there are a few elements to look out for.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Burning smells, exposed wires, abnormal motions or grinding sounds. All of these elements are usually a sign that a major equipment malfunction is likely. Not every worker is standing around waiting for a machine to fail, but encouraging employees to be vigilant is a good policy to follow.
- People working around equipment with loose clothing, jewelry or long hair that’s not tied back. More common sense than anything else, this can be an unseen problem in the modern workplace. A supervisor or manager may not always be able to check that everyone is correctly attired, but encouraging employees to point it out to one another could prevent a serious accident.
- Poor equipment maintenance. This relates to the potential for equipment malfunction, but should not be an ongoing problem if you have an automated EHS management system, which allows you to create (and stick to) set maintenance schedules.
2. Hazardous Energy
According to OSHA, “energy sources including electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, chemical, thermal, or other sources in machines and equipment can be hazardous to workers.”
Hazardous energy can be released during maintenance of machines and equipment, often when a machine starts up unexpectedly. This release of stored energy in the equipment can catch workers by surprise, resulting in serious injury or even death.
Fortunately, there are routines and procedures that can limit the potential for hazardous energy release. Often referred to as lockout/tagout (LOTO), these standards require employers to take certain steps to protect workers from hazardous energy releases.
OSHA figures show that the failure to control hazardous energy in accordance with LOTO procedures accounts for almost one in 10 serious workplace accidents. In addition, workers injured by the unexpected release of hazardous energy lose an average of 24 workdays while they recover from the accident.
Taking that into account, what should companies be looking out for?
Employee shortcuts, lack of training and an unawareness of where hazardous energy can be stored are all areas that can fall short of required LOTO standards.
Some employees can get overconfident, for instance, thinking they can complete the job faster without following proper LOTO procedures. Others don’t realize that it’s not just large equipment that calls for LOTO. Even when servicing smaller pieces of equipment or changing out light bulbs, energy needs to be locked out until the job is complete.
And then there is the perception that all unreleased energy is electrical. People tend to focus on electrical sources, but there are many other potentially hazardous energy sources which include pneumatic or hydraulic pressure, thermal energy and even gravity.
Properly documented LOTO procedures are the first step to protecting workers, but companies must also periodically audit against those procedures, evaluate employee training effectiveness and use established risk management procedures to identify new hazards.
3. PPE Compliance
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is another area where employee complacency can be the catalyst for a workplace accident.
The routine nature of some tasks may lead employees to think that they don’t really need PPE. This can be a deadly mistake, since wearing helmets, goggles, fall protection and confined space equipment can mean the difference between safe work and a major accident, regardless of how mundane a task is.
It might be tough for a worker to point out when a colleague is not wearing the required PPE, but if they don’t say anything and an accident does occur, the likelihood is that they – and by association, the company itself – will feel much worse.
In fact, this goes for any unsafe workplace habit, whether it’s texting while driving or operating machinery, ignoring job safety analysis (JSA) procedures or failing to follow the rules in general.
4. Poor Housekeeping
Thanks to our increased work/life balance, the average person will spend most of their lives at work rather than at home. Most people don’t want to live in an untidy or unclean house, so it makes sense that a workplace should follow the same criteria.
In reality, it’s probably even more important to critically evaluate workplace conditions because a messy environment creates ample opportunities for safety incidents.
Tools left out instead of being stored neatly, trash blocking walkways or exits, wet and slippery surfaces, improper chemical storage and/or labeling … all of these can generate a citation from OSHA and a hefty fine.
For example, a postal facility in Ankeny, Iowa, was recently hit with reported penalties of $184,694 by the federal agency for not only obstructing emergency exit routes with mail hampers and undelivered packages, but also failing to train its workers in emergency procedures.
It’s very easy to ignore the state of the workplace when you are under pressure to get products out of the door, but you can bet OSHA won’t give you a pass just because you “were busy.”
5. Personal Issues
Telling someone you have their back might make them feel safer, but watching out for your coworkers both physically and mentally is also critical to preventing workplace accidents. It’s not only noticing what they’re doing in the moment—it’s also paying attention to how they’re feeling.
For example, if someone is visibly exhausted, they probably shouldn’t operate heavy machinery. Periodic breaks must be enforced to prevent fatigue.
Fatigue can also be related to mental health, even though we have a tendency to focus on the physical symptoms rather than what is going on inside someone’s head. A colleague might be having a rough time at home or dealing with family illness. They might be suffering from anxiety or depression, or even addiction issues outside of work.
Working while distracted can be extremely dangerous, so it’s important to check in with employees and see if a temporary transfer in duties or professional counseling would help out.
Safety is a workplace right
Ultimately, workplace safety isn’t about avoiding OSHA violations and fines. It’s about taking care of each other.
Anyone can slip into bad habits and become lax about safety, which is why it’s critical that we have each other’s backs in the workplace. When effective job safety analysis is integrated into the workplace, everyone can go home safely to their families at the end of the day.
As the leading provider of quality, EHS and compliance management software to a variety of industry sectors, ETQ’s core belief is that quality drives excellence and creates value. Trusted by over 550 global brands, we know that quality management is a business optimization tool that allows companies of all sizes to solve pressing problems with a proven SaaS solution.