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Managing Risk in the Workplace

Filed under Office & HR.

Government regulations often require that a business adhere to specific Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. But passing an OSHA or other safety inspection doesn't mean that an accident won't happen, according to leading safety experts.

"OSHA coming in and doing an inspection doesn't give a company a clean bill of health," said Don Hughes, a loss prevention consultant with National Farmers Union Insurance Company. This is because audit ratings can be misleading. Often a high safety rating can give a company a false sense of security, he said.

Therefore, businesses can reduce on-the-job accidents and lawsuits by determining the risks that are particular to their industry, becoming aware of the dangers presented to visitors and new hires, and contingency planning for problems that could occur under plausible scenarios.

But a one-size-fits-all approach won't work. "The safety department has to know the specific hazards," said Patricia S. Eyres of Litigation Management & Training Services, Inc., Long Beach, California. Not only should businesses try to determine the everyday risks in their industries, but they also should look at foreseeable conditions, she said. Some areas, for instance, are prone to earthquakes or hurricanes, while others might have chemical plants or other hazardous material sites nearby.

Managing Risk, Not Safety

When addressing these issues, "the focus should be on the positive," Hughes stressed during a September 16, 2003, interview. Rather than conducting safety audits and ranking the company based on a numerical system, risk managers should see where the company is doing things right and look for areas that can be improved, he said. "You're better off not rating them in an audit. You're better off looking at things that they're doing well and recommending things they can improve upon," he said.

For instance, he noted, a risk manager might recommend a manufacturer use more machine guards; sweep the floors; reduce slips, trips and fall hazards; improve employee knowledge of potential dangers; and encourage employees to follow proper procedures. "By enhancing those areas, they're reducing their risk, not managing safety," Hughes said. "What you're doing is trying to have the facility enhance and improve upon its programs to reduce the amount of risk such that the employees will not be injured."

Look for Potential Hazards

OSHA requires that companies train all employees who might be exposed to risks. That means anyone who can breathe, inhale, absorb and ingest harmful substances should be educated about the materials and equipment they use. Eyres noted that many firms are careful enough to take the obvious precautions, like providing protective gear for their employees, but they skip some necessary steps, like making sure it fits properly. "Managers often overlook all the potential hazards in the workplace."

In addition, managers should think about how the substances could harm a visitor. Most people know they are required to wear hard hats in construction areas, but not everyone would think of wearing effective goggles, earplugs, masks or protective suits if they are visiting a plant, she said.

Spotting and Preventing Injuries

The next step is to teach employees what to do if they have been hurt. There should be a protocol laid out that lets the staff know exactly how to respond and to prevent an even bigger accident, said Eyres. Moreover, employees should be told how to detect whether they have been exposed to danger. Perhaps a harmful substance does not hurt when it first is inhaled or comes into contact with the skin. "Knowing the hazards and training employees is the number one thing managers need to do."

Outside consultants also can help foster a sound safety plan, Eyres said. Most manufactures provide training on how to use their equipment. Moreover, local law enforcement officers can help by providing classes, such as how to address workplace violence, she noted.

However, safety programs will fail if they are too limited in scope. For instance, holding pre-announced drills will not guarantee employees can get out of a building quickly when they are under stress, Eyres said. Workers should be subjected to surprise evacuations, which are much more realistic. Managers also need to think about the dangers employees can encounter when taking a work break or getting ready to leave work. One example Eyres mentioned was of a man who was injured when he took off his protective suit and then touched the outside of the suit, thereby transmitting a harmful chemical to his hand and other parts of his body.

Most states have no-fault workers' compensation to cover on-the-job injuries. Still, lawsuits, fines and penalties can occur when the violation is due to negligence or willful violation of the law, Eyres noted. "Courts will look at whether the workplace was a safe environment."

Eyres also recommended the following procedures:

  • Develop a policy for how to handle safety violations. "Employers often don't include disciplinary measures in their policy."
  • Enforce safety policies consistently. "Many employers overlook safety violations by good employees and come down hard on marginal employees."
  • Encourage compliance with employees. "Show them safety is the most important priority."
  • Summarize the information provided in manufacturers' data sheets that comes with equipment to make it easier for employees to understand how to do their job safely. "Training manuals should be designed for everyday English." She added that information should be presented in other languages, if necessary.
  • Outline specific safety precautions, such as requiring where visitors must be escorted or prevented from entering.
  • Conduct an ongoing hazard assessment. "Knowledge of hazards changes," she said, noting that smoking in the workplace was permitted not too many years ago.
  • Train employees periodically to update them on new standards. Most companies train their employees every 18 to 24 months, she noted. Also, employers should train all new employees and current employees every time they change jobs within the company or gain new responsibilities.
  • Review workers compensation history for patterns that could indicate safety hazards.
  • Document all training efforts. "Nothing is worse then knowing you did it and not being able to prove it."

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