In December 2018 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from 2016 to 2017 worker fatalities were “down slightly” from 5,190 to 5,147. They went on to describe that only 3.5 workers per 100,000 died at work in 2017 as opposed to 3.6 in 2016. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this, those numbers are appalling. The fact that anyone saw fit to even try to cast a positive light on 5,147 human beings being killed while they try to provide for themselves and their families is downright disgusting. And all of it is our fault.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve spent my career working in Industrial Safety & Health. We call ourselves Safety Professionals, but we are known by many different titles: Safety Officer, Safety Manager, Health & Safety Coordinator, Safety guy/girl, you name it. Most everyone who has held a job in this country has at least had a loose connection to someone in my field. We’re the ones who write all the safety rules, tell people they’re not wearing their safety glasses, fire people for violating OSHA requirements, and on and on. But we should be the ones protecting people.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many who strive day in and day out who do just that. But even the best among us have fallen into what I call the “compliance trap.” We get so wrapped up in the rules we make (or the ones our companies are required by law to abide by), that we forget about the people those rules are designed to safeguard. Not too long ago, I was told that a company can’t even begin to get “good” at safety until it is great at (OSHA) compliance. I find that fundamentally backward and potentially life-threateningly harmful to employees.
There are two distinct issues at play here. The first is legal compliance. The second is actual worker safety. Let’s start with compliance.
While I would never argue against being OSHA (or any other governing agency) compliant, I will argue until I turn blue that complying with their laws does not directly correlate with worker safety. Compliance is required, that’s without question. But compliance needs to rest on the shoulders of organizations, not individual workers. There are three things people miss when trying to sell compliance as a fatality prevention measure:
- OSHA enforcement is directed toward companies, not workers. An employee rarely has any personal motivation to comply.
- OSHA regulations are laws and written as such. Even if a worker was motivated enough to read them, there is nothing within them to envoke an emotional response powerful enough to make someone want to buy in. The rules may tell someone what they can or cannot do, but they don’t explain why (or how).
- Compliance “feels” oppressive. No one wants to be told what to do. Workers need a reason to invest their energy and will likely resist if they feel forced.
Now let’s look at what real worker safety means. I mentioned already that compliance is the organization’s responsibility. It would be easy to read into that statement and assume that I mean to say the worker is absolved of responsibility, but that is entirely false. Workers have the personal responsibility to perform to their safest ability while working within the compliant environment their organization owes them. The trick is getting them to buy in. Someone like me can yell OSHA at a worker all day long like its some four-letter curse, but the truth is OSHA just doesn’t mean anything to most people. Most people only care about what matters to them. For some it’s family, for some it’s fishing, but everyone has a vested interest in not dying. Meaning most of us enjoy living.
If companies would invest more time in figuring out what it is that people live for, appeal to those things, and then show them why working safely will allow them to continue those activities, we might actually see worker deaths decrease. My point is simple: compliance is required and safety is required but they’re distinctly separate things. Help me spread that message and actually make a difference in the lives of American workers. It’s far past time we do.
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