U.S. Workplaces Becoming Safer

A survey of leading U.S. companies finds American workplaces have become increasingly safer due to management commitment and employee involvement..

According to a report released by the Conference Board, companies are reporting a steadily declining rate of lost-time accidents and injuries and incidents reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

From 1999 to 2002, the number of lost-time cases per 100 full-time employees in surveyed firms declined by an average of more than 40 percent, and recorded incidents declined an average of more than 23 percent trends that are generally consistent with OSHA statistics.

The report notes companies striving for outstanding safety and health records are not only ensuring strict regulatory compliance, but are developing their own best practices to improve their performance. The primary drivers appear to be a belief that accidents and injuries are both unacceptable and costly, and that business strongly benefits from workplace safety programs both directly, through reduced costs, and indirectly, through improved morale and increased productivity.

The report found use of "best practices" is high; 84 percent of surveyed companies have adopted 23 best-practice strategies listed in the survey. Certain themes stand out as essential: clear management visibility and leadership; ownership of safety and health by all employees; accountability at all levels of an organization; and open sharing of knowledge and information throughout the organization.

"There are similar core principles in play at companies striving toward zero accidents and injuries, but there is no common template," says Meredith Armstrong Whiting, a senior research fellow at the Conference Board and co-author of the report with senior research fellow Charles J. Bennett. "Each company faces unique needs and opportunities inherent in the nature of its operations, workplaces, and corporate culture. But the move toward strengthening safety is now widespread."

The study shows that management practices alone are not sufficient to achieve outstanding safety performance. All of a company's workers must be engaged and involved. Within companies known for safety and health excellence, safety and health is a shared value. If this value, both to the business and to all employees, is not shared, any improvements in safety will very likely not be sustainable, according to the report.

"Operational integration," defined in the survey as the integration of safety into all facility operations and processes and the most highly rated practice in the survey has been adopted by 90 percent of the survey participants. The practice was given an effectiveness rating of 8 or better by more than 75 percent of its users, and almost 30 percent gave it a rating of 9 or 10, putting it in the "extremely effective" category.

Ratings for some of the more traditional programs, such as safety committees and training, were less positive. This may be because respondents are very familiar with these safety and health management tools, since companies have employed them for decades. It may also suggest that survey participants view these programs more as necessary obligations than best practices.

Strategies to increase employee involvement beyond the established use of safety committees may prove the most fertile ground for further improvement of safety and health performance, especially in light of the current emphasis on employee ownership as a vital component of any safety and health program.

The core elements of successful safety and health strategies, according to the Conference Board survey participants, are:

  • Leadership at the top
  • Confidence on the part of all employees
  • Creating and implementing a safety and health management system that works for the individual company
  • Monitoring performance regularly
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