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Employers create safer work environments via technology and worker feedback

Posted On: Jan. 4, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Companies are creating safer work environments by allowing employees to report mistakes and potential dangers without retribution, as well as using techniques that promote safety as a value rather than an obligation.

Nonpunitive, close-call reporting systems, which have been successfully utilized by the airline and health care industries for at least a decade, are becoming increasingly popular in manufacturing, construction and other industries, safety experts say.

Since it's easy to recognize unsafe situations, such as a worker who's not wearing personal protective equipment, some companies have turned their safety programs into “the tool they use to document inefficiencies,” said Trish Ennis, Denver-based president of the American Society of Safety Engineers and senior risk control consultant at Willis North America Inc.

Using safety as a disciplinary tool can prevent companies from becoming learning organizations, which is why implementing a nonpunitive, close-call reporting system is considered a best practice among many safety professionals, Ms. Ennis said.

More employers are starting to understand there's a difference between consequence and discipline. Depending on the situation, she said, workers who've indentified near misses might be invited to partake in devising the solution, and workers who've made mistakes might be asked to complete additional training.

A close-call reporting system functions like a “suggestion box on steroids,” said Debbie Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois. “You have a process by which you deal with input (from employees) and you also communicate back out to the employees what happened and what changed. That's a really important part.”

Mike Porter, director of global environmental, health and safety at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, said giving workers the option to remain anonymous is especially important when it comes to collecting behavioral-based safety observations.

“If you were observing me, and you wanted to remain anonymous, you have the right,” Mr. Porter said. “Or you can put your name in there, and you'll get immediate feedback.”

TJ Lyons, construction safety manager for global construction and environmental services firm Gilbane Federal in New York, said he remembers walking around a worksite 10 years ago with his then-boss when the man bent down and cut a cord that was not supposed to be laying on the ground, rather than just telling the worker how to fix it.

Mr. Lyons said he reminds workers that his program is a constructive one by always highlighting things that are done correctly, as well as what's wrong or unsafe. And when people ask what he's up to as he makes his rounds, he replies, “Just saving lives.”

In addition to positive reinforcement, Mr. Lyons said he makes work environments safer by using technology.

If someone on a site inspection has a question about whether something is safe, he or she can send visuals using a tablet, “and I can make the determination from 5,000 miles away without guessing like I would on the telephone,” he said.

Another safety technique is using small video cameras to document worksite conditions, Ms. Ennis said.

“For example, a contractor doing work on a highway project can drive the project in the morning with their GoPro (camera), and that will document the condition of the work zone prior to work starting,” she said, adding that footage can be used “to improve or to defend, depending on the situation.”

However, technology can lead to privacy concerns, Ms. Ennis said. And companies that use safety as a disciplinary tool will likely “find that people are less willing to use technology to increase (safety),” she said.

There are plenty of safety techniques that don't utilize technology, experts say.

Once a company with multiple locations has outlined the basic properties of its safety philosophy, they might consider letting each facility find its own ways to support it, said Dan Kugler, director of the Center for Insurance and Risk Management at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

It can be done through an incentive program or team meetings, said Mr. Kugler, the former assistant treasurer of risk management at Snap-on Inc., which he said practiced a “top down, bottom up” approach to safety.

In addition to receiving support from corporate risk management and safety, and other facilities, each Snap-on location had the opportunity to design and implement its own safety program that addressed the company's safety philosophy, Mr. Kugler said.

Sometimes, safety has to be about spending now and saving later. That's the philosophy at Scottsdale, Arizona-based LeBlanc Building Co. Inc.

Something as small as making sure extra safety glasses are available for workers who've scratched their lenses makes a huge different in the long run, said Jeremy Bethancourt, director of safety, health and training for the commercial/residential contractor.

It can get expensive, but “it's important for them to know we really are going to be there to support them with everything they need,” he said, adding that such gestures also help with motivating workers to be safe.

Mr. Porter said Goodyear also encourages its plants to communicate and promote the company's “No One Gets Hurt” safety initiative the way that's best for each location.

For about two years, the company has considered safety a value rather than a priority, Mr. Porter said. That shift is evident at a facility in Brazil, which displays large-scale posters of workers' family members, he said.

The posters are there to remind workers why they show up every day — to provide for their families — and that “we want them to go home safe at the end of the day,” Mr. Porter said.