What is it about people, an office, or a work scenario that causes accidents? The U.S. Census Bureau reported in the year 2000 that the following general categories of causes resulted in fatal work injuries:
Some of the factors associated with accidents and loss have been identified as those relating to management style and beliefs, human resource policies, operational procedures, and storage of supplies and merchandise. Let us examine how each of these factors contributes to workplace accidents.
The way a manager approaches obligations, and the beliefs about personnel and the nature of work affect the way in which the person manages. Managers, as leaders, work within two dimensions—1) attention to task (i.e., what needs to be done), and 2) attention to relationships (i.e., interaction with subordinates). A manager’s beliefs about what really matters has a great impact on how she or he chooses to exert leadership. The issue of safety and the costs of accidents and injuries generally are not apparent to managers unless their organization provides clear data identifying these costs—and the financial impact of accidents and injuries on their chapter, department or, sometimes, on their individual performance evaluations. Some of the management styles and beliefs that contribute to breakdown in safety include:
Many managers believe that accidents are something that happen to other people, and therefore, workplace safety is not a priority. Without a genuine commitment to establishing and maintaining a culture of safety, management will try to remain ignorant of the cost of accidents and injuries. Worse yet—management knows too well how the reporting of claims will impact their workers’ compensation insurance and has instituted a culture of intimidation in which employees and volunteers will be encouraged not to report injuries or accidents. They believe that no news is good news, and that by exerting their influence, they can suppress these reports.
Yogi Berra once said, “Ignorance isn’t what you don’t know, it’s what you know wrong.” Managers who are clueless display a lack of understanding about the costs—human and financial—of injury, illness and unsafe conditions. Some managers do not even know that their state or local government must obtain workers’ compensation insurance. Perhaps they think that if they ignore it long enough, it will go away. Refusing to address workplace safety issues can have devastating results—financially and moral wise.
Managers, who are not held accountable for insurance costs, generally ignore the incidence of accidents, injuries and/or other claims. Their belief is: “We have insurance—who cares?” This attitude will not change unless there are significant and unpleasant consequences associated with it. A safety conscious public entity needs to start at the top, literally. The top elected official (i.e., governor, mayor, city manager) needs to adopt and enforce consequences for unsafe conditions and pass this mindset down through the ranks.
It is one thing to expect that employees will contribute to the safety in the workplace. It is another thing to provide direction, guidance and consequences that spell out exactly what is expected, how the public entity expects staff members to achieve this safe environment, and what will happen if individuals do not do what is expected.
Workplace safety begins with the entity’s human resource policies and practices. The rule should be that everyone working for the entity is required to behave in a manner that promotes safety and follow the rules to ensure a safe environment.
For example, if the entity has a fleet (i.e., cars, buses, trucks or a combination of vehicles), or requires employees to drive on behalf of the public entity, it is necessary to require acceptable department of motor vehicles records for all drivers in addition to a valid driver’s license. The license must be appropriate for the type of vehicle(s) that the applicant will be required to drive on the job: personal car or truck, chauffer’s license or commercial. The cost of obtaining the DMV record could be borne by the applicant. If the person wishes employment with the state or local government entity, he or she must provide documentation that proves fitness for the position.
Similarly, the entity must take proactive steps to investigate the cause of an accident, including considering substance abuse tests. As part of an accident investigation, these tests are not necessarily an invasion of privacy. Drug testing is subject to numerous federal, state and local laws; investigate thoroughly before you implement a drug-testing program.
Cooperation with all law enforcement is essential. As part of any employee handbook and new employee orientation, there should be a clear description of the process that will take place in the investigation of any accident whether on-site, or driving a vehicle on behalf of the entity. Establishing and enforcing policies is an important step in developing a safety-conscious workplace.
In the screening process, make certain that interviewers and HR staff are trained to listen for clues of potential trouble, such as adverse comments from a reference, when evaluating an applicant. Once on board, employees need to be supervised to ensure that they understand responsibilities and performance expectations. If employees are demonstrating a history of mishaps on the job, then steps need to be taken immediately to identify the source(s) of the problem(s).
Regardless of the nature of the public entity’s work, safety needs to be built into all activities and functions: office space, workstations, work sites, buildings, warehouses and equipment—from photocopiers and computers to backhoes and refuse trucks—among others.
Others safety issues pertain specifically to the demographics of each entity’s staff. For instance, public entity’s whose employees include more seniors, youth or physically or mentally challenged would have heightened safety concerns.
A belief that Newton’s Law of Gravity does not apply to the entity’s storage arrangement is a precursor to injuries that can be very serious. If storage cabinets are packed with supplies; halls, space in front of seldom-used emergency exit doors, and stairwells are used as auxiliary storage areas these are harbingers of injury, accident, and even death in case of emergencies.
Haphazard trash removal can create unsafe conditions. Rubbish that includes days’ old food is unsanitary and can cause health problems, and attract vectors (an organism, such as an insect or rate, that transmits a pathogen), and vermin (small common harmful or objectionable animals, such as lice or fleas) that are difficult to control.
Spilled liquids need to be wiped up promptly to reduce slips and falls and the development of mold.
Lack of maintenance and/or repair of power hand tools, vehicles, HVAC systems, and motorized equipment to name a few can result in accidents and injuries.