From safety culture to a culture of safety, protecting workers from harm is the most important thing companies can do.
Workplace safety refers to the policies, procedures, and practices put in place to reduce hazards and guarantee the physical and mental health of employees in a workplace setting. Maintaining employee health, avoiding accidents, and sustaining productivity are essential for building a safe and supportive work environment.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency in the United States tasked with establishing and implementing standards to guarantee safe and healthy working conditions. It achieves this aim through the regulation of workplace procedures, provision of advice, and inspections.
In an interview with Jonathan Klaine, the senior safety editor for Lab Manager, he discusses the value of following rules and the significance of OSHA safety standards in an interview. Fostering a culture of safety where employees feel comfortable speaking openly about it and caring about others are effective in increasing workplace safety.
Q: OSHA has a set of safety standards that employers are required to follow. Could you explain the role of OSHA in ensuring workplace safety and preventing accidents?
A: So, OSHA was created over 50 years ago, in 1970. It mainly obligates employers to ensure their employees’ health and safety. Their role is to create regulations for industries, also called standards. They also provide guidance because regulations are not always the easiest things to either read or fully understand, and enforce those standards. That involves conducting inspections, verifying either compliance or non-compliance, and imposing OSHA citations and fines. That, I believe, covers the basics of OSHA.
Q: OSHA provides training resources for both employers and employees. How crucial is proper training in preventing workplace accidents and creating a culture of safety?
A: I’m a huge proponent of effective training, and unfortunately, a lot of safety training has a well-deserved bad reputation for being far too information and knowledge-based and not enough based on good adult learning principles. It is about prioritizing avoiding unforeseen, often termed “incidents” in health and safety industries. Also creating a culture of safety is important, and OSHA does have a lot of resources and training resources for this.
One thing I would definitely recommend is the Training Requirements in OSHA Standards document number 2254. It is all about the training requirements for all of the regulations, and it is reasonably up to date. For anyone who’s trying to figure out what they need to do and how often, that document is a great starting point for them.
There are many things that make safety training effective, but the one thing I would focus on is making it absolutely relevant and specific to the operation that the employees are engaged in. By making it interactive, employees get to ask questions, run through scenarios, what should you do if events, and all sorts of training along that nature.
Q: Can you share examples of industries or job roles that are particularly prone to workplace accidents and how adhering to OSHA standards has improved safety outcomes in these areas?
A: Some careers that come up very frequently for most hazardous are:
- Farming: Farming has a lot of incidents because workers are surrounded by and manage a lot of highly mechanized equipment. They have to ride on it, guide it, or clean and fix it with their bodies. Sadly, I have to say, in a battle between machinery and human flesh and bone, the machinery will always win hands down.
- Trees / Logging: Typical jobs with trees include logging trees, pruning trees, and chopping trees down. When you need to prune a tree, you have to use a ladder and a chainsaw high up in the air. Chainsaws are notorious. They don’t cut, they tear wood. So, they’re very good at – unfortunately, if given the opportunity – tearing flesh. So, wearing protective gear and cut-resistant clothing helps protect workers. Also, trees do not always fall the way you want them to. This results in cars, homes, and even people being crushed by the weight of dead or live falling trees.
- Construction: There are all types of incidents with construction workers, such as roofers when they fall off a two-story home and land headfirst. Falling is a major concern with construction. Even falling from a stepladder, if you fall the wrong way, could lead to life-threatening consequences.
- Fishing / Crab Catching / Oceanic Jobs: The fishing industry is undoubtedly among the most dangerous, and the ocean is probably to blame when things go horribly wrong for what seem to be clear reasons. You try to fish or catch something that has suddenly become highly marketable. But many people will go out without proper training or safe equipment. They are running the risk and they do not understand. So many deaths occur that way. I love the sea. I love the ocean, but it is hugely unforgiving.
- Aircraft / Pilots / Flight Engineers: It doesn’t get discussed too often, but situations where celebrities have been flying in small aircraft for years, often under dubious circumstances. Even if the celebrity does not put pressure on the pilot to fly under dangerous weather circumstances—as was the case with Buddy Holly and other celebrities—the pilot may feel compelled to do so, making a poor risk-based decision.
- Mining Operations: Mining operations and incidents are a vast story. There are so many dangers that come with working in a mining environment.
Q: How important is it for companies to prioritize workplace safety and adhere to OSHA regulations? Could you share any real-world examples of the impact of proper safety measures?
A: Let me add to that. I really liked that in this question you put prioritizing workplace safety first and adherence to OSHA regulations second. Even if you did not mean that, the first is more important than the second.
Compliance is important — I’m not saying it’s not. However, compliance will never keep people safe. What keeps people safe is safety culture, and it’s far more challenging, but it is very doable.
This one time, I was speaking with the president of an extremely large construction company in Maine. The president told me a really impactful story about a workplace fatality that led to vital company safety changes and the journey to operating their company on a culture of safety instead of trying to be compliant with OSHA — to go far beyond that. To create and cultivate a true culture of safety, which they have successfully done.
The president’s story shows that it is not always about the logic of safety or what’s in your head, but about what is in your heart. Really caring for the people in the workplace and making sure everyone is safe is the cornerstone of workplace safety.
Q: Workplace safety is an ongoing effort. How can companies ensure that they stay updated with evolving OSHA regulations and implement continuous improvements in their safety protocols?
A: Actually, keeping up with and maintaining compliance with OSHA isn’t that difficult. The fact that it is a legal process severely restricts OSHA’s ability to operate. Being a legal process, it must go through a multitude of very lengthy time-consuming steps. And as a result, the regulations are neither frequently nor quickly changing.
OSHA is a federal law, but in the 70s, U.S. states had the option to create their own state plans specifically for their workers. These plans had to be as compliant as federal OSHA, but they may also go above and beyond. Most of the state plan states follow the federal model very closely. Hardly any go above except for California. If you are in California, you have to follow the Cal/OSHA requirements. Those change more frequently and quicker.
The biggest challenge is actually staying current with everything that is going on in your industry. What are truly the best practices? Oftentimes, organizations will find a method that works and simply continue to do things in that manner. Then, perhaps, the industry evolves, but they are unaware of it and still fall short of the requirements.
So, I think it is really, how do we keep up with our field in general and the best practices? Also, what are the things we can do to guide us with things another company is finding more success in? Dedicating those efforts and putting time, money, and resources towards keeping up to date on things via the regulations, and really via what is your industry doing? That is what can keep people safe.
Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is the senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a consultant, trainer, professor, embedded safety director for two colleges of engineering, and now writing for Lab Manager. He is a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University where he studies our risk perceptions and the effects of storytelling. He can be reached at: email@example.com.