Sayings like the one quoted above jump off the pages of safety literature and construction publications all over the world. In fact, one web site I visited while researching this article had well over 100 sayings geared at drilling the idea of safety into our collectively thick skulls. But do adages like “anger is one letter away from danger,” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” do anything more than add to the already misrepresented view of the safety professional?
The truth is…I don't know.
I have never been to safety school and I don't have a collection of orange cones back at my condo, but I have seen my fair share of bloodstains in the dirt and trenches without shoring. I have seen upside down cranes and ruptured gas mains and had a conversation with a guy who survived a power line contact. I have been on job sites where safety took a back seat to things like deadlines and bottom line cost, and I have cracked my skull while not wearing my hard hat. So rather than a traditional classroom education, which I by no means am attempting to undermine, I would say that my education, in large part, has been through the more traditional “school of hard knocks.”
Construction site safety is one of those things that is often talked about but seldom truly understood. In fact, in the early years of construction it was so misunderstood that the safety of the workers, or the lack thereof, was actually built into the job estimate.
It was common practice for accidents to claim one life for each two floors of a building, or for each million dollars of general construction performed, or for each half mile of tunnel construction. In the old days, the days where crane operators still operated by the seat of their pants and the “no blood, no foul” mindset still prevailed, accident prevention was really more accident reaction. Accidents on the job were just part of the process.
But as time went on and dying on the job became less and less appealing to the average construction worker, mindsets changed and things like safety management and moral obligations to keep a safe working environment began to take a more emphatic role. Managers and executives began to see that the cost of safety management far outweighed the cost of not having safety management. To put it in perspective, take this as an example: Somewhere in the nation, during the five minutes it takes for you to present a safety meeting, one person will be killed by accident and 220 will suffer an accidental disabling injury. Hardly something to be taken lightly.
But scare tactics aside, what does it mean to you, the busy, ambitious, that's-why-I-hired-a-safety-guy, business owner?
To answer this question I did what any good insurance professional would do and transferred the risk to the appropriate party. Bill Smith, vice president of NBIS Risk Services, looks at it this way: “How many people truly believe in the posters that are hanging at most jobsites? 'Safety is or 'Safety is our top priority’ or 'Safety is our goal.’ In my years of safety and training, I have found that many companies say the words but don't back it up with actions. Simply put, it's a matter of ‘dollars and cents’ instead of ‘dollars and sense.”
Smith points to three factors that drive safety. He says, “I use the analogy of a three-legged stool. Each leg has an impact on the stool being able to stand. Companies are driven to manage their safety programs by each leg of this stool.”
SmiThexplains that the first leg has the title of “regulatory compliance,” also known as OSHA. The second leg is “insurance premiums and risk taking (deductibles),” and the third leg is the “tort system and civil liabilities (lawsuits).” Each of the legs has an impact on the companies’ economic growth and well being. He says that the sad part is that all of these legs come into play after thecompany has a bad accident. It sometimes falls into the old cliché “pay me now or pay me later.” If a company devotes realistic resources to a safety management program, and “lives by the rules” they would be in a much better position even after an accident occurs.
“We all know that they do occur and we must try to keep them to a minimum,” he says.
Smith raises a good point because safety is like a stool. When all three legs are working together the stool is stable and doesn't fall but when one of the legs is wobbly, either from lack of proper maintenance or even blatant neglect, the stool can fall. But what if there was a fourth leg, another piece to the overall picture that could bolster it even more?
“There could be an addition leg on this stool, what I would call 'moral obligation,” Smith says. “Many times, this leg of the stool isn't as long and solid as the others and, perhaps, doesn't reach the ground all together. It gets blurred by the economic pressure to profit as a company.”
Smith continues: “The safety manager of your company is always challenged by the operations side of the company. Usually, the first corner to be cut in an operation to save time and money is the safety corner. In many cases, but not all, doing it quicker means doing it with a smaller safety margin. Trying to get managers to understand that 'Safety pays it doesn't cost’ is a difficult task because the tangibles are not easily identified and apparent.”
It is hard to document when an employee, because of the company training they received, prevented an accident from taking place that would have occurred without the training, Smith says. “Therein lies the problem that challenges all companies. How much time and resources do I spend on safety management?” he says. “I think the answer is complicated yet simplistic. Look at your history of claims first; you know where you need help and what needs attention. Devote the resources and fix the problems whether it's equipment maintenance, safety rules and policies, further training of employees, or having managers that won't enforce the established rules. You need to make a change to make a difference.”
Remember if you do nothing different to affect a change, change will not occur, Smith says. “Above all I believe that if you want a safe workplace and you want to avoid the complications that come with any of the legs of the stool, you have to think of your employees working for you as if they were your own family members and not allow them to be put in, or place themselves in, a dangerous situation,” he says. “Think about how hard it would be to explain a fatality or serious injury to the rest of your family and keep this thought every time you look at your business practices and the potential of putting your employees in harm's way. Maybe the three legged stool will end up being a four legged stool after all and become even more stable.”
Safety is an ongoing struggle but it is one that has a clear and concise purpose: To send employees home in the same condition that they showed up for work. We can manage unforeseen events by studying history and paying attention to the signs that are all around us. And maybe, just maybe we can even learn things from corny sayings. After all, it's like they say, “Never check a gas tank with a lighted flare.”