Going Beyond the Limits

Sept. 1, 2008
A 10-year study conducted by DuPont found that 96 percent of accidents at the company were the result of unsafe actions by employees going beyond their limits, rather than unsafe conditions.

A worker in a machine shop in Illinois is injured when a conveyor belt snaps and strikes him in the face. On the surface, this would appear to be a common workplace injury, especially in an environment where belts and pulleys are moving at great rates of speed.

But you may be surprised to learn that it is more likely, even as high as 20 times more likely, that the same worker instead becomes a lost-time injury case by twisting his back bending down to pick up his tool box, or slipping on a wet floor due to anything from an oil leak to condensation dripping off a large Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.

The study results from DuPont, indicating that employees sometimes exert themselves past their physical limits, show that maybe trying to pick up a 400-pound piece of machinery all by yourself isn’t such a good idea after all. To further back up DuPont’s findings, a 2006 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Study found that more than 50 percent of all workplace injuries are a result of overexertion, falls, twisting the wrong way or other physical movements, resulting in estimated annual workers’ compensation costs of just over $46 billion.

Reversing the Trend

What we have is the perfect storm, where the No. 1 cause of workplace injury – overexertion resulting in hard to diagnose and equally hard to treat muscular-skeletal sprains and strains – is the No. 1 most costly of injuries. So, how can we reverse the trend?

On the surface, it would seem that the most likely place to turn would be OSHA, which, for the past 30 years, has been the guardian at the gate when it comes to workplace safety. But although there has been a strong increase in the awareness of making the workplace safer over that time, OSHA’s focus hasn’t necessarily been on the behavioral aspects of the job. The agency is all about compliance and findings, and tends to feel more comfortable with problems it can see on a clipboard. In short, it’s harder to change behavior than it is to change a facility, and easier to fix a faulty piece of machinery than it is to convince a worker not to try to move it.

Perhaps one of the main reasons employers have not been more aggressive in trying to get OSHA involved is that business owners are skeptical when someone says: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The fear is that once they are invited in, they won’t leave, and once they’re in, what will they find?

It makes more sense for business owners to take the initiative themselves through performance appraisals, starting with first-line supervisors who need to make sure injury prevention is part of the overall workplace scorecard. Supervisors need to raise awareness among the rank and file to work as a team, and to look after one another. It’s extremely important that workers watch out for the supervisor, and support the policies put in place, all with the immediate goal of workplace safety.

This teamwork also can generate incentive programs, above and beyond the obvious No. 1 incentive of avoiding injuries on the job. All should share in reaping the rewards of a safe workplace, whether it’s a certificate on a wall, a pin on a uniform or a cookout at the end of the summer. By replacing the “us vs. them” mentality that often can fester on the job into a “we’re all in this together” credo, major steps have been made to keep workers healthy and on the job.

Hiring Right

But that having been said, at the end of the day, it still starts with hiring the right people for the right job, and giving them the needed education and training to do the job properly and safely within their limits.

By doing so, the added rewards can include lower premiums, increased workplace safety, less injury-related absences and even inclusion in OSHA’s Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP), which recognizes small employers who operate an exemplary safety and health management system. Acceptance into SHARP by OSHA singles out a company as a model for worksite safety and health. Once a company receives the SHARP recognition, its worksite is exempt from programmed inspections during the period that the SHARP certification is valid.

Human behavior is hard to change. Millions of years ago, some guy in a cave saw a big rock and said to himself: “I can pick that up, no problem.” Next thing you know, he throws out his back, can’t outrun a T-Rex, and, well, you know how that ended. But in today’s workplace, with the proper training and a first-line supervisor at the top of his game, supported by the workers around him who know their limits, injuries can be avoided.

Frank Pennachio, CWCA, is co-founder and director of learning at the Institute of WorkComp Professionals, Asheville, N.C., the largest network of workers’ compensation professionals in the nation. He also is president of a workers’ compensation insurance agency, and a licensee and trainer for Injury Management Partners. A well-known speaker, his articles appear regularly in business and trade associations. He can be contacted at frank @workcompprofessionals.com.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!