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VPPPA 2013: Is Your Facility Safe By Accident?

Aug. 28, 2013
As an OSHA compliance officer, Mark Norton investigated over 70 fatalities and later, as an assistant director of the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, supervised hundreds of fatality investigations. The worst part, he admits, is sitting in a room with the worker’s family, explaining how their loved one died.

The last thing any company wants is for its facilities to be safe by accident, Mark Norton, MAOM, RSP, told a full house at VPPPA’s annual conference in a session titled, “Are Subcultures Eating Away at your Safety Culture?”

“If you don’t pay attention to the little things,” said Norton, “you’ll have fatalities.”

A short cut – bypassing safety precautions in order to speed production – these things can lead to injuries and even fatalities. Norton offered an example from his own life of the terrible impact one poor decision can have not only on the person who made it, but on others who depend on that person.

As a member of the Coast Guard, he was called in late one night. His supervisor, someone Norton admits was a tough guy – “someone I was a little scared of” – was crying. As it turns out, six Guardsmen from their unit had died in a helicopter crash in a terrible storm, trying to rescue someone who had suffered a massive head trauma because he was not wearing a hard hat. They knew it wasn’t safe to go out in that weather, but without their help, the man would have died.

“Six people died because one person wasn’t wearing his PPE and suffered a head injury,” said Norton. “Sometimes cultures fail because employees don’t have proper equipment or training. Sometimes they fail because they didn’t do something they should." There’s always a reason for an injury, added Norton, and subcultures play a role in those injuries.

A safety manager might feel he or she is fostering a strong safety culture because the “right” things are written down as part of a safety program and because there have not been any incidents or fatalities. However, said Norton, there might be subcultures within the facility that are sabotaging safety efforts. An example of such a subculture might be a supervisor overlooking “minor” infractions of safety rules in order to keep production moving along.

These subcultures often only become apparent when a safety infraction leads to an injury and someone asks the question: “Why did you do it?” and the employee answers: “Because I’ve done it that way before and my manager was standing there when I did it.”

“This is not situational safety,” says Norton. “Safety rules alone won’t do it. You need leadership, the ownership and involvement of all employees and the ability to deal with competing priorities. Priorities can change; values do not.”

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