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Managing employee safety behaviors within a recycling operation is a broad topic. In the interest of brevity, this article will discuss some key points that an owner or operations manager may be able to use to make intentional improvements to his or her own safety management efforts.

Beyond theory

A theory of injuries was developed in 1931 by W.H. Heinrich and named “The Domino Theory.” This theory states that 88 percent of losses are caused by unsafe actions, 10 percent are caused by unsafe conditions and 2 percent are “acts of God.”

Most safety professionals agree with the basic premise of this theory: The human factor plays a significant role in the occurrence of workplace incidents and injuries.

Employee safety behaviors primarily are affected by the organization’s safety culture. Safety culture is defined as “the commonly held beliefs, attitudes and values (related to safety) of a group of people who are engaged in a common set of experiences (i.e., workplace).”

Every organization has a safety culture, if not by design than by default. Some safety cultures are positive, effective and result in few injuries and incidents, while others seem to support risk, unsafe conditions and attitudes of apathy. Culture will develop within an organization; ideally this will happen at the direction of a management team with specific goals for safety and corporate success.

Management will take many traditional steps to address safety and compliance. This includes developing safety policies, providing employee safety training and measuring related results. This is important and required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations in the United States. However, organizations that go beyond traditional safety efforts and pursue developing safety positive culture often experience safety results far better than their industry counterparts.

Accident versus incident

The perspective a company has regarding loss is very important, even critical. Most companies with strong safety cultures manage their vocabulary as it relates to loss. Consider the terms “accident” and “incident.” The word “accident” tends to reference something that is unavoidable; whereas “incident” indicates avoidable causal factors and something that can be managed. An organization’s perspective on loss and how it can be avoided is foundational to the safety culture and will influence the safety behavior of the workforce.

Enforcing versus coaching

Safety activities or behavior can be separated into two major categories: mandatory and voluntary.

Mandatory safety behavior is based upon stated rules or procedures; these are the do’s and don’ts of the safety program.

Voluntary, or discretionary, safety behavior is the application of safe work practices and is driven by an employee’s desire to work safely.

Enforcement is typically applicable to defined or mandatory safety policies or procedures. Common examples include use of personal protective equipment (PPE); following lockout procedures; and prohibition of certain activities, such as smoking within the facility. Enforcement is essential to the proper management of safety within a facility. However, voluntary safety behavior is what leads to sustained zero-injury results within a facility.

Safety coaching is a significant step beyond enforcement and has application to mandatory and voluntary safety behavior. One example might include providing positive feedback to employees who are following defined safety policies and procedures. Many studies have shown that positive feedback can be very beneficial for managing behaviors. Safety is no exception.

Another application of coaching relates to voluntary, or discretionary, injury-prevention behaviors. This might include asking for employee feedback on needed safety improvements or solutions to known loss problems. Discussing and providing examples of proper lifting technique is an example of safety coaching.

Safety observations

Safety observations differ from safety inspections in that safety observations are focused on employees’ behavior, where safety inspections tend to be focused on physical conditions. Conducting periodic and planned observations of employees’ safety behavior can provide valuable insight to needed safety improvements and confirm good application of safety policies or safe work practices.

An effective approach to safety observations might include obtaining input from a safety committee for developing observation checklists. The checklist might include written rules pertaining to the operation being observed and safe work practices that would apply to that operation. An agreed upon frequency for observation would be determined and the task assigned to key personnel who have the appropriate knowledge and experience to perform the observation.

One of the greatest values of this program is derived from providing feedback to the employee(s) observed. Feedback should be provided in a coaching format as compared with the enforcement approach.

Some areas where safety observations may prove beneficial include:

  • lockout procedures – Observe employees performing a lockout procedure. Ask the employees to verbally walk through the steps, reference the lockout worksheets and observe communication with other affected employees as the equipment is shut down and returned to service. On this particular topic, attention should be paid to following the written procedure carefully, not skipping any steps.
  • forklift and heavy equipment operation – Depending on the type of recycling facility, both types of mobile equipment may be in use. With forklift operations, some key points to make with the operator would include looking before backing, travel speed and how to operate near other personnel. Forklift driver operator testing criteria may serve as a good checklist. For heavy equipment operation, entry and exit from the cab (using three points of contact), travel speed within the facility and operation near personnel may be key points of observation.
  • sorting line – Observing employees working the sorting line may focus on use of PPE, ergonomics and responding to jams or line stoppages. Discussing use of emergency stop devices would be appropriate as would reinforcing employees’ ability to use such safety stops.

Many owners focus on process improvements, understanding that they require constant attention and adjustment; safety behavior management is no different. Managing safety and safety culture will provide great benefits to employees and owners, affecting job satisfaction and improving safety and profitability.

John Schumacher is an insurance broker and safety management professional with more than 25 years of experience helping companies manage insurance cost through safety and wellness programs. For more information, contact him at jschumacher@assuranceagency.com or at 847- 463-7224.