Safe Workplaces: They're All About Attention to Boring Details

Few things seem more mundane than obsessing over the details of safe work practices. And that’s exactly why the obsessing is so important.

Now and then a Treatment Plant Operator reader calls or writes to say we printed a picture that shows someone working in an unsafe manner: not wearing safety glasses, wearing the wrong shoes, standing in a precarious place.

Our first response to such comments is: Thank you! We might not enjoy the embarrassment of having failed to notice a safety violation before giving a picture the green light. But we’re glad to have the mistake pointed out, as a reminder to be more diligent. Now, if we are less than perfect about vetting our pictures — and we do vet them — imagine all the imperfections that occur in daily, hectic life at a treatment plant.

So one has to ask: When the importance of safety is as basic as making sure everyone goes home from work in one piece, why is it so hard to sustain a safety culture? Why do people ignore rules created for their own protection? And why do employers sometimes enforce them less consistently than they should?

‘It won’t happen here’

One theory I have is that for many of us, safety preaching aimed in our direction is boring. It sounds like nagging. Put on that protective gear? Yeah, yeah. Lock out and tag out that machine you’re servicing? Hey, it’s a small job. It’ll only take two minutes.

Little petty rules just get in the way, right? Nothing bad ever happens when we neglect to put on a hard hat, or fail to shore a trench that’s “only” 4 feet deep, or ignore frayed insulation on a power cord. Nothing ever happens — until it does. And then, well ...

Clean-water and drinking water treatment plants aren’t notorious for being dangerous places, at least not when compared to coal mines or construction sites. But hazards still abound in the form of electrical equipment; wet floors; stairways, ladders, catwalks and railings; handling of chemicals; and more. 

Creating a culture

Staying safe in any workplace isn’t about individual people being extra careful. It’s about culture. It’s about leaders insisting on safe practices — nevermind if the team members sometimes think it’s all a bunch of nit-picking. It’s also about leaders designing processes with safety as the paramount concern.

There’s another thing leaders of safe facilities do, and that’s avoid taking too much pride in statistics. Because what does an 11-year perfect safety record mean if next week someone gets injured or killed through carelessness or a bad process?

I once knew a mining company executive who had been in charge of a South American coal mine a number of years, during which time his site compiled a safety record — based on workplace injury statistics — that was far better than global norms for the industry.

“You must be proud,” I once said to him. He replied, “I am ashamed to say that two workers were killed during the time I was in charge.” In his view, the only acceptable injury rate was zero. He felt that around any workplace mishap, there was always something that could or should have been done to prevent it. He refused to accept that “accidents happen.”

All on board

That attitude starts from the top in any safety culture. And somehow it gets conveyed in ways that are not boring. Simply pestering people about safety — insisting that they “be more careful” — isn’t enough. And yet there needs to be an obsessiveness about the mundane details of keeping the workplace safe.

The expectation — clearly and repeatedly communicated – is that first of all, everyone will go home each day without an intervening visit to a hospital. And that expectation is undermined unless every team member is on board with it.

In other words, yes, there are safety rules here, and yes, following them is a condition of working on this team. On that point there is no negotiation. In such a context, safety lessons become less mundane, less like nagging, less boring. That’s part of how long spells of injury-free work get started, and continue.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.