The National Safety Survey: You Talk and We Listen

Aug. 1, 2008
Hundreds of EHS professionals discuss their companies’ occupational safety and health programs and offer their wish lists for OSHA. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly of EHS.

The greatest EHS challenge for Gregory Havel, safety director at Scherrer Construction Co. Inc. in Burlington, Wisc., is what he perceives as the adversarial attitude of OSHA. “In this state, OSHA is strictly regulatory. If you call them with a consultative question – ‘Should I do this?’ – their best answer is ‘maybe,’” says Havel, who responded to the 2008 National Safety Survey.

Havel says he’s afraid of asking the agency to visit his job sites as part of the consultation program “because all the sudden, it turns into an inspection if they see something they don’t like.”

That said, Havel is proud of his company’s record of 18 months without a lost-time incident. He attributes Scherrer’s safety record in part to help from its insurance provider, which has an industrial hygienist and safety professional on staff to answer specific EHS-related questions, and to President and CEO Peter Scherrer, who designed the company’s current safety program.

“He buys into it and the employees buy into it, although in the construction industry, there are still some workers who want to do things the way they’ve always done things,” says Havel. The company has a strong safety committee that includes employees who are committed to creating and maintaining a safe work environment. Those employees are able to convince their coworkers that working safely is the best way to work, he adds.

The Topic of OSHA

Havel is not the only respondent to the National Safety Survey who complained about OSHA. But many respondents, however, think the agency is doing a fine job. In fact, more than half – 57 percent – of respondents rated OSHA’s performance as “excellent” or “good.”

When asked “What do you consider the most important achievement of OSHA during the Bush Administration?” responses varied, with many leaning toward approval for what is perceived as a more business-friendly, cooperative attitude at the agency. “A steady move toward a more helpful attitude from compliance officers and the inclusion of the training officers,” said one respondent. “A true switch to being a resource and help, rather than a ‘bad cop,’” said another, while a third person commented, “Emphasis on partnerships with business rather than heavy-handed compliance.”

Other respondents were critical of the agency. “Has there been an actual OSHA during this administration? Could have fooled me,” said one EHS professional. “What achievements?” asked several others.

When asked what OSHA standards they would like to see disappear, the standard most reviled by EHS professionals appears to be the hazcom standard, which was called confusing and time-consuming. Respondents struggled with 29 CFR 1910.1020, which defines material safety data sheets (MSDS) as employee exposure records requiring them to be retained for 30 years. As one person commented, “Thirty-year MSDS – [a] storage nightmare.” Even the General Duty clause had its critics, generating such responses such as “Too broad and interpretive;” “It’s a catch-all reg;” and “Too open and vague.”

When asked what OSHA was doing right, some EHS professionals commented on specific legislation. Efforts to align OSHA standards with NFPA 70e were met with approval, as was the passage of the hexavalent chromium standard and, somewhat surprisingly, the employer pay-for-PPE standard. OSHA even was given credit when it wasn’t due: For appointing John Howard to head the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, for example, when Howard actually was appointed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, and for issuing the Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Prevention Act of 2008 (H.R. 5522), which was a Congressional bill (although several respondents appropriately applauded the agency for reissuing its Combustible Dust National Emphasis Program). One respondent offered kudos to OSHA for “killing an onerous and unfair ergonomics standard,” while another berated President George W. Bush personally for “the revocation of the ergonomics standard. It immediately set the tone of his administration and provided a glimpse into his view of the importance of worker safety.”

What’s Important?

We received hundreds of responses when we asked, “What is the most important thing you do to improve safety and health in your organization?” One of the most detailed answers was: “Assist in developing a SAFETY culture, believed in by all. Constantly strive for ZERO accidents, having all employees live with the goal of everyone being a safety manager.” Other answers were short and succinct: “Accountability.” “Funding.” “Awareness.” “Live it!” The most frequent answers included:

  • Accident prevention and investigation
  • Active engagement of all employees in the safety process, including employees, supervisors, managers, executives and contractors
  • Inclusion of safety in the design of processes or facilities
  • Communication, mentoring and coaching
  • Education and continuous training (training received dozens of mentions)
  • Increased focus on specific programs, such as ergonomics, electrical safety, equipment maintenance, etc.
  • Maintain a visible safety presence on the shop floor.

Some respondents offered answers that included valuable tips for EHS professionals. One said he “tries to put the dollar amount of [an] OSHA fine” to safety issues. “This shows [management] what we would face if it was an OSHA inspection.”

Suggested another: “Translate corporate policy into a personal value for each covered employee; [remind] each employee to reflect on what returning home safely at the end of the day means to them, their families and friends.”

Don Burkhart strives to keep employees thinking about safety and its importance in their lives and the lives of their families and friends. Burkhart, senior safety engineer for BP America Production Co.’s Wamsutter (Wyo.) Operations Center, says that on any given day, some 120 BP employees and as many as 700 or 800 contractor employees are on site. His greatest safety challenge is maintaining middle management commitment and buy-in.

“Now, I’m just talking local operations here,” Burkhart cautions with a chuckle, saying he can’t comment on other BP operations. “When you’re in the middle of Wyoming, they don’t let you leave much because they’re afraid you won’t come back.”

Burkhart uses one-on-one coaching and group coaching to stress the importance of maintaining the safety culture, a challenging task when as many as a dozen contractors with highly mobile workforces are active at his facility on a daily basis.

“Wyoming is one of the economic bright spots in the country,” says Burkhart, adding it is both a blessing and a curse. “The upside is there is a high demand for workers and the downside is a shortage of skilled workers. We have one contractor who has a 30 percent turnover on a monthly basis.”

Burkhart says that the safety process at the facility has stayed strong due to a core group of long-time BP and contractor employees who are able to mentor new BP and contractor employees and who actively communicate BP’s philosophy that any employee can stop work at any time if safety is compromised. He also gives props to the contractors on the site, many of whom maintain full safety staffs of their own.

“They realize that maintaining adequate safety staffing is efficient and a good way to operate,” says Burkhart.

Targeting Injuries

Workers at lumber mills face many hazards, not the least of which are exposure to sharp saws and tools. Kathleen Seamans, safety coordinator at B & B Lumber Co., says injuries at the Jamesville, N.Y. pallet and wood flooring manufacturer have decreased significantly since the company got serious about its lockout/tagout program.

The going was a little rough at first. “That was a hard program to implement,” recalls Seamans. “Workers were taking risks, reaching into equipment to clear jams because it took less time. And there was attitude because I was a woman coming into a man’s environment and telling them what to do.” Eventually, through training, employees were convinced that locking and tagging out equipment before stepping over it or reaching into it could save fingers, arms, legs and even lives, and did not significantly increase production times.

Seamans says the company’s policy of post-incident drug and alcohol testing has helped reduce injuries as well. “We have rules and if they jeopardize their safety with drugs or alcohol, they know we’ll send them home for 30 days without pay,” she says, adding, “Most don’t want to take the risk.”

Musculoskeletal injuries are a challenge at B & B, she says, but she worries that should OSHA adopt an ergonomics standard, “trying to comply would put us out of business. We’re a small mill with limited resources.”

Musculoskeletal injuries are a concern at most of the worksites represented in the National Safety Survey, with back injuries (93 percent) and arm/hand injuries (92 percent) the most actively targeted injuries, followed by falls (64 percent), eye injuries (53 percent), hearing loss (49 percent), heat stress (46 percent), chemical irritation/burns (33 percent), foot injuries (28 percent) and head injuries (24 percent). Respondents offered 321 answers when asked, “Where is the most room for improvement in your organization/facility’s safety and health program?” The four “C’s” – communication, compliance, consistency and culture – were mentioned by the majority of respondents, while employee and management buy-in, training and funding received their fair share of supporters.

Despite several references to underfunded safety programs in the “room for improvement” question, money for safety does not appear to be decreasing at most workplaces across the country. Most respondents said their 2008 budget for safety stayed the same as last year (57 percent) or increased (33 percent).

Looking Ahead

The National Safety Survey asked “What, if any, impact do you think the outcome of the 2008 presidential election will have on occupational safety and health?” The majority of respondents answered “none” or “very little.”

A number of respondents showed their true colors – red (Republican) or blue (Democrat) – by commenting on the election outcome. Whether the respondent was a blue stater or a red stater was made evident by comments like: “A liberal administration will try to impose more penalties on business and be more employee friendly. A conservative administration will be more reasonable and more supportive of business” and “Democratic administrations seems to care more about workplace safety.”

And then there is the respondent who doesn’t like John McCain or Barack Obama: “Due to the liberal stand of both candidates, I see nothing good coming.” And the optimistic EHS professional who didn’t appear to take a side but who wrote in capital letters, “HOPEFULLY POSITIVE.” And the respondent who, though unsure what impact the election would have, said, “Mark me down as a Republican.”

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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