When HR Manages Safety

Nov. 5, 2001
Human resources and safety professionals may share a common responsibility for safety, but often little else. This article explores the differences between the two disciplines and what resources HR pros can draw on to manage safety effectively.

Many human resources professionals have direct responsibility for safety management or indirect responsibility by supervising an occupational safety professional. Two questions arise: How is safety management different from human resources management, and how can a human resources (HR) professional better understand and manage the safety function?

The differences were illustrated by an article, "A Quality Human Resource Curriculum: Recommendations from leading senior HR executives," in the winter 1997 issue of Human Resource Management. In this article, the authors used the Delphi Method and asked 24 senior human resources professionals to rate 31 HR content topic areas. Of these, content areas such as "strategic roles of human resource management," "compensation" and "EEO" were rated at the top of a one-to-five Likert scale.

The lowest rated areas included "background and history," "HR research" and "safety and health." Several members justified the low rating because many organizations do not require safety management as part of HR's responsibilities. Still, the PHR/SPHR (professional in human resources/senior professional in human resources) exam requires testing in the areas of "health, safety and security" (http://hrci.proexam.org/hrcihand.html).


The first important fact to understand is that there is a very definite difference between the fields of safety and human resources management. Although job responsibilities often overlap, safety and human resources professionals have distinct differences in their academic preparation that, in turn, affect the way they view their management of the safety function. Although there is no absolute, there are broad generalizations that can help clarify the differences between safety and human resources professionals.

Safety professionals receive their academic preparation from a number of sources. Some are educated in science disciplines, some major in a related field such as technology, and others in fields related to safety, such as industrial hygiene. There are specific academic degrees in safety.

According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, there are fewer than 50 bachelor of science degrees in occupational safety in the entire United States. Of those, only five are accredited by the American Board for Engineering and Technology (www.abet.org/accredited_programs/RACWebsite.html), which is the equivalent to the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business.

Those earning a baccalaureate degree in human resources are studying subjects like recruiting, compensation and benefits, training and development, and management that mirror the PHR/SPHR exam. Those working on a degree in safety management are taking courses such as introductory safety, safety program management, safety engineering, safety and health legislation, systems safety and workers' compensation.

While there are overlaps between the two disciplines, safety management graduates, who might earn a degree titled "safety sciences" or "occupational safety," emerge much more specialized and technically oriented. This specialized background provides safety program graduates with a technical background HR professionals might lack, as well as specific management techniques to keep workers safe, while lowering workers' compensation costs and keeping the firm in compliance with OSHA. Again, these are very broad generalizations, but there is a real difference between safety and human resources professionals.

Current Philosophy

People often avoid dealing with philosophy. This can be to their detriment, as philosophy is the basis for action. While books can be written on safety philosophy, there are three main points of philosophy that must be understood by anyone responsible for workplace safety.

1.Good safety management starts with top management. Considering that workers' compensation rates are a major expense for most companies and again rising well past the rate of inflation, it is illogical that anyone would think otherwise. Thirty years after passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, some top managers still do not understand their safety responsibility, and some have been criminally prosecuted for failing to meet their responsibility. While safety responsibility belongs to literally everyone within the organization, it ultimately rests with top management, which must be committed to safety and willing to invest the time and resources to attain a safe workplace. After all, isn't good management ultimately responsible for everything the organization does or fails to do?

2. Too often people take a "things happen" approach to accidents, which assigns workplace injuries and illnesses to random change. If accident prevention is reliant upon random change, why bother with training, or seat belts in cars, or having fire extinguishers in the workplace? The answer is simply that what people do, or fail to do, can stop an accident, cause an accident or add to the severity of a loss in the event of an incident. Incident prevention is not a matter of luck, but is reliant on good management techniques. Companies with good safety programs literally see safety as just another part of the business and manage it much like they do productivity or quality.

3. Incidents are made up of two elements: frequency and severity. Frequency and severity are the results of unsafe acts, unsafe conditions or a combination of the two. Current philosophy espouses that unsafe acts are the primary loss factors, responsible for no less than 90 percent of all workplace injuries. What people do or fail to do is the largest contributing factor to the frequency and severity of an incident. Examples are people lifting too much and having back injuries, people falling and workers removing guards from machines. While safety should start with engineering methods to engineer and design out hazards, thus making them "foolproof," approximately 90 percent of frequency and severity are dependent on unsafe acts. This is why safety is so reliant on behavior modification. It also explains why safety professionals are trained with a combination of technical skills, as well as managerial and human relation skills.

Measuring Safety

Managers today are being asked to measure their results. This is difficult in safety, because the purpose of effective safety is to prevent injuries and illnesses. How can you measure something that did not occur to demonstrate program effectiveness? In the November 1997 issue of Professional Safety, three basic quantitative measures of safety effectiveness were provided.

The first is the Experience Modification Rate (EMR). To explain this in simple terms, the EMR is a complex actuarial computation that looks at your firm's losses, both in frequency and severity, and compares those losses to other firms of your type and size. The EMR of the hypothetical "average" company is 1.00. If your firm has an EMR of 1.25, your firm's losses are approximately 25 percent worse in terms of frequency and severity of losses than is expected, and your workers' compensation insurance rates will reflect this. Again, this is a simplified explanation, because factors that have little bearing on your firm's safety record, such as insurance loss reserves, can affect your EMR.

The second measure is insurance loss ratios. If insurers are paid a dollar in premiums on the "average" policy, they expect to pay approximately 70 percent in claims and another 30 percent in administrative expenses. This is a broad generalization, because the losses for some types of insurance, such as property coverage, are much lower and the losses for some types of insurance, such as workers' compensation, are much higher. The combination of the two expenses &endash; claims and administration &endash; is known as the "combined ratio." You can check with your insurance agent to discover the combined ratio for workers' compensation. This combined ratio varies depending on the type of insurance, as well as year to year. Comparing your combined ratio to other similar firms, as well as the industry in general, will help you get an idea of how your firm is doing.

The final measure is OSHA incidence rates. These rates are established by OSHA and gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to help compare firms of the same SIC code. The problem variable between firms is that companies always have a different number of hours worked by employees. SIC codes help by comparing all companies to a hypothetical firm in their SIC code with 100 employees, all of whom worked exactly 2,000 hours in a given year. If your incident rate is higher than other firms within the same SIC code, you need safety improvement. Another good thing about SIC codes is that they are also broken down into injury by type. If you want to know how your specific safety programs, such as preventing eye injuries, are doing, SIC codes can help. More about SIC codes can be learned from OSHA's Web site (www.osha.gov).

Getting Help

The sources of help for firms needing guidance in their safety efforts can be broken down into two categories: those that cost and those that do not. There are two major sources in the category of resources that will not cost: your insurance company and OSHA.

Your insurance company is a good source for assistance with safety. Your insurer has a vested interest in keeping your losses low. The first step in having low losses is having an effective safety program. Your insurer has a local staff of safety professionals to service accounts such as yours. Also important, the insurer probably has a staff at its home or regional office that includes specialists in areas such as industrial hygiene and fire protection engineering.

Insurance loss control services are not a substitute for an internal safety program, only a supplement. The amount and quality of services the insurer is willing to provide are based upon the quality of your insurer (with low-cost insurers logically offering fewer services) and the size of your yearly premium.

Another possible source of safety help rests with OSHA. The agency is actually broken down into two parts, enforcement and consultation. Though some states, such as California and Tennessee, have state OSHA enforcement instead of federal enforcement, all states have consultation services that are available to help the business community. While federal OSHA has a consultation branch, the majority of the services are provided by the states.

The quantity and quality of the services available depend upon how many resources your state government allocates to the consultation branch. Often, it takes several months of waiting for state OSHA before help is provided. Although consultation services are free, if you have willful violations at your location or refuse to correct in a timely manner serious safety violations that the consultation branch discovers, the consultation branch will inform the enforcement branch.

Hiring a Consultant

If your firm decides outside resources are needed and that the insurer-provided services are not enough, or you are reluctant to ask OSHA for assistance, another option is to hire an outside consultant. There are plenty of consultants available in most areas; the key is getting the best you possibly can for your unique situation, depending upon how much your firm is willing to pay.

Safety consultation services are not cheap. In selecting a consultant, you should look for a degree in the discipline where you need assistance. For example, if you need a safety management professional, really question whether you should hire a consultant who is primarily an industrial hygienist, and vice versa.

Another consideration is professional certifications in the field. Again, look for applicable designations. There is a tremendous difference between someone who holds the certified safety professional (CSP) designation and one who has the certified industrial hygienist (CIH) designation.

Also, be careful of individuals with professional certifications or academic degrees that sound impressive but, in reality, represent nothing more than papermills. At one time, the CSP and CIH were new and untested. In the same manner, there are certifications, designations and degrees that are valuable, but new. Check to see what the designation means and what its reputation is in the field. Still, be aware that there are papermills awarding degrees, up to a doctorate, and professionals with certifications who have paid a fee, but lack any real training or background.

Setting up a safety program is a challenge, even for a trained individual. Be aware that there is a difference between professional education in safety and in human resources. Many human resources professionals have been cross-trained in safety on the job and have emerged as fine safety professionals. Until you can receive that training, there are services, both for profit and gratuitous, available to you to help you along the way.

Shawn Adams, Ed.D., CPCU, ARM, PHR, CHCM, is the director of risk management at AdminSolutions in Charlotte, N.C. Dr. Adams has served on the permanent faculty at Embry-Riddle University and Southeastern Oklahoma State University. Adams' work experience includes positions in loss control for USF&G, corporate risk manager for Capital Electric and as a safety management consultant for Lockheed Martin. He holds an M.S. in safety from Central Missouri State University and an Ed.D. from Texas A&M.

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