Viewpoint -- Safety Is No Laughing Matter

Your employees, your business and your community deserve better than your half-hearted efforts.

I heard a story recently that -- on the face of it -- was initially amusing but ultimately somewhat scary in that it was true. Add to that the additional truth that goings on similar to that relayed by the storyteller likely are occurring in businesses across the country, and one could get downright depressed -- or hurt. It was a story about safety preparation, or in this instance, a lack of it. I don't remember precisely what prompted the story in the first place. I was at a Labor Day picnic talking with a bunch of folks about nothing in particular. Some of us were making faces at a baby, who appeared alternately overjoyed or incredibly frightened by the attention. Others were egging two dogs on to increasingly greater feats of misbehavior. Maybe a fire truck went by in the distance, and we heard the siren. But somehow or another one of the guys at the table (I'll call him Jerry) brought up that he was a designated "fireman" at the manufacturing plant where he works. "Really," I said, happy to hear that his business had safety measures in place. "That's pretty interesting. What exactly is your responsibility in the event of a fire?" His job, he said, was to grab a fire extinguisher and race to the location of the fire, along with the other designated firefighters. Jerry explained that the local fire department had come out and given all the plant firemen lessons about how to use the equipment, as well as other basic safety lessons. Then he laughed and launched into a story about a fellow firefighter. It seems this guy missed part of the firefighting lesson. At the first fire drill following his lesson he did the right thing and grabbed an extinguisher. Then he raced outside with everyone else, extinguisher in hand. Had the parking lot been on fire, he would have been right on the scene. Unfortunately, the "fire" was inside. Everyone at the table laughed, but really, it wasn't funny if you think about the possible consequences had there been a fire -- and I said so. Jerry agreed, as did everyone else at the table. "Well, at least you know how to use a fire extinguisher. That's a good thing," I said. "W-e-l-l," Jerry hedged. "Certainly I knew how to use an extinguisher. But I learned almost a year ago. I haven't actually used one since then. I'm not sure if I could do it or not." Also not good. "Anyways," he added, "I'm not the best person to be a firefighter. [In the area] where I work you can't even hear the alarm go off." "Isn't there some visual alarm as well?" I asked. "Oh, yes," he said. "Just not by me." "Haven't you told anybody? That is dangerous." I questioned. He just shrugged, clearly believing that his raising the issue wouldn't result in any action being taken by management, other than to bring unwanted attention to him at a time when the plant was contemplating layoffs. Being quiet and productive was his best chance of riding out the wave of job cuts, Jerry said. I also believe he doesn't think a fire is likely at this plant, so why raise a fuss? As these things often go, others at the table had stories as well -- and still others chimed in when I shared this conversation with people later in the week. For example: At one plant, workers are supposed to don special equipment to both empty and refill containers that hold a liquid that could -- at the very least -- irritate the skin. Other possible consequences were more harmful. While the plant had the required equipment, the fellow who worked there explained, it was stored well away from the site at which the emptying and refilling occurred -- so its use was frequently disregarded. And, as nobody whose responsibility it was to perform that task had actually ever been splashed or otherwise injured by the liquid -- even without the protective gear -- no one felt a need to question the status quo. Another person told me about how the construction crew of which her boyfriend is a part simply disbands for the day if it learns an OSHA inspector may be paying a visit to the area. These three stories are good examples of poor safety practices, incomplete safety plans or a disregard for safety at the workplace altogether. Poor safety practices can be costly, as many businesses discover once OSHA has paid a visit. A glance at the OSHA Web site shows that more than $300,000 in fines had been assessed against firms in September -- and the month was only half over. At least one of the violations was identified as "willful," which the agency describes as "one in which there is evidence of an intentional violation of the OSHA Act or plain indifference to its requirements." But more important than the financial impact of poor safety is the very real possibility of serious injury to workers, the physical structure of a business itself and the surrounding community if a severe enough event occurs. Can utter safety within a workplace be guaranteed for every employee all the time? Probably not. Accidents sometimes happen to even the best prepared. What can be guaranteed is that a company is doing everything it can to make the workplace safe. In two of the instances I cited previously, the workplaces could have been made much safer with little outlay of money and more attention to procedures. More frequent fire drills, additional emergency signals, a simple change to plant layout. Also missing was a full commitment by company leaders to safety within their plants. If plant-level employees aren't concerned about their own safety, it's a good bet that the top executives have not demonstrated that safety is a top priority. Isn't that a shame? Jill Jusko is IW's New Media Editor. She is based in Cleveland.

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