Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Depressing Fact for an Occupational Safety Professional

Recently we were helping one of our clients with an annual event they have where they bring in family members of the employees and celebrate their culture (they really do have a great culture there). They have a barbeque, games, tours of the facility so the family members can see what they do there, and some presentations on safety with the hope of making people safer both at home or at work.

At SCM, although we are safety professionals, we often spend most of our time dealing with safety and health issues at work. There are lots of reasons for this that we don’t need to get into in this blog. However, while researching for the barbeque we found some interesting statistics. Bear in mind that the client we were dealing with is a chemical manufacturer that essentially makes battery acid. So this is a high hazard industry we’re talking about. But when you compare how safe the employees are at home and at work its not even close – the employees are much more likely to be hurt or killed while at home than at work!

Lets take a look at some numbers. The most recent firm data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is for 2011 (they just released the preliminary numbers for 2012, but the final numbers won’t be released for another few months). In 2011 BLS reported 4,693 occupational fatal injuries in the US. That’s almost 13 people per day dying at work. During that same year, the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported 122,777 accidental deaths. This includes both occupational and non-work related. If you do the math that means about 96% of all accidental deaths are NOT work-related, and although about 13 people die at work every day in the US, over 323 people in the US die every day outside of work from accidents!

I must say that this is depressing for a safety professional. For all the efforts we expend to make people safe at work, doing risk assessments, training, prevention through design, audits, applying the hierarchy of controls with care, all of this could be meaningless the next time the employee takes a vacation and gets into a horrible auto accident (the leading cause of accidental death), they accidentally overdose on prescription medications (poisoning, the second leading cause of accidental death), or they fall from their ladder while putting up Christmas lights (falls, the third leading cause of accidental death). And this doesn’t even include the hundreds of thousands of disabling injuries people get at home as well. If the human cost is not enough to convince you, the home accidents cost businesses billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost productivity.

Clearly we have a problem here and, unfortunately, there’s no clear solution. However, as safety professionals, we have to admit that our message of integrating safety into our daily lives isn’t sinking in. There’s many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that, as Abraham Lincoln says, “we must think anew, we must act anew.” We have to start preaching safety 24/7 and we have to lead by example. In our trainings we should stress how the concepts relate both to home and work safety. Some organizations (like the one mentioned above) provide PPE and other safety equipment to employees for home projects, with the understanding that if you use it at home you’ll use it at work. You can even provide employees with a home hazard checklist (like this one) and give incentives and rewards to employees who complete the checklist.

Whatever we do, we have to keep in mind that if we truly care about the safety of our employees, our care doesn’t stop at the organization’s front door. We need to think about how we can protect ourselves and our families wherever we go. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Active Shooters – How to Protect Your Employees (and yourself)

We are saddened by the events in the Naval Yard in Washington earlier this week. Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to the victims and their families. These events remind us of the very real threat that violence in the workplace, particularly from active shooters, presents to all of us.

Many are surprised when we tell them that violence in the workplace is the second leading cause of occupational fatal injuries, responsible for 767 deaths in 2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those 767 deaths, 463 were homicides, with 375 specifically related to the use of firearms. This means that more than 1 person each day died in 2012 from a shooter in the workplace. This is a significant hazard that every safety professional must consider and incorporate into their risk management systems.

Certainly, some industries are at a higher risk of workplace violence, such as retail and healthcare, but every industry is affected by workplace violence in some way. Given the recent events now may be a good time to remind workers of the proper procedures to follow in the event of an active shooter in the workplace. Fortunately there’s some great resources available online that can really help bring the messages home. Two resources in particular we’ve found useful in training:

Run. Hide. Fight. This video was developed by the City of Houston, TX, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security. It breaks down the response to active shooters into very simple, easy to understand steps and gives some great tips that are easy to remember. This video is also available for download from the ReadyHouston website.

Last Resort Active Shooter Survival. This video goes over steps to take if you’re trapped and have to rely on the “Fight” aspect from the Run Hide Fight model above. Its taught by an ex-Israeli military soldier who does a great job of teaching people practical lessons to give them tactical advantages in an active shooter situation.

Even though active shootings are largely random events, some preventative elements may help reduce your risk further. For example, criminal background checks on employees may be necessary for some positions. Additionally, managers and supervisors, if not all employees, should be trained on how to identify risk factors for employees who are at risk and potentially unstable. These matters can be touchy though, so make sure you put a lot of a thought into your specific organizational culture and how to best implement these preventative measures. However, with a little thought and preparation we may be able to reduce the likelihood of these terrible events and reduce their effects when they do happen. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Silent Killer - Suicide in the Workplace

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week here in the US Suicide is not something commonly discussed, for many reasons. However, many people would be shocked to know just how often people commit suicide in the United States (and in other countries). In the US, in 2010, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for the whole population. It is the second leading cause of death for those ages 25-34. Around 105 people commit suicide every day in the US. Suicide kills more people every day than car accidents and the average person is more likely to kill themselves than they are to be killed by another person (homicide kills about half as many people as suicides do).

These statistics are sad and shocking, but what does this have to do with the workplace? According to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, suicides caused 225 workplace fatalities in the US, accounting for 5% of all workplace fatal injuries. Suicides killed more people at work than confined spaces, fires and explosions, exposure to electricity, heat stress, falls on the same level, or “caught in” fatalities (such as trench collapses). Each of these other causes of occupational death receives significant attention by the occupational safety and health community but suicide is virtually ignored even though it’s killing more people.

There are many reasons for this, such as cultural stigmas related to mental illness or the belief that suicide is a Human Resources problem. Some people are just overwhelmed by the complexity of suicidal behaviors and choose to stay at a distance. The bottom line though is that people are dying and it’s the job of the safety professional to make sure that doesn’t happen on our watch. We have an important role to play in developing occupational health and safety management systems that protect our employees from all hazards, including internal ones.

Many assume that the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) should be able to take care of that. And yes, an EAP has an important role to play in suicide prevention. However, simply putting an EAP in place and assuming that will solve the problem is not good enough. The problem with EAPs is that they rely on the person who is at-risk for suicide to seek help on their own at the exact moment when that person may feel the most hopeless and beyond help. Instead, EAPs must be part of a suicide prevention program where employees are trained to be aware of the risk factors of suicide and what to do when they identify those risk factors in a fellow employee or themselves. Supervisors and managers should receive additional training on how to manage situations where someone is identified as at risk, as well as how to ensure a safe environment for all employees without bullying or harassment. All employees should be made familiar with the EAP process during training. If possible, having a representative from the EAP to put a face on the program will help.

Other elements may be necessary, depending on your specific organization. However, the safety profession cannot simply put our head in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem when we have a responsibility to protect others.

Here’s some links for more information about suicide prevention:

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

GHS - The clock is ticking

September is here. This means that employers only have 3 months before the first deadline for the new Hazard Communication (HazCom) standard, GHS, hits us. With that in mind, we thought it would be a good time to quickly summarize some of the key requirements of the standard for those who are still unsure about it.

So, first off, what is GHS? GHS stands for the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. It’s actually a standard adopted within the United Nations and many UN member countries, including the United States, have pledged to adopt it. OSHA formally adopted GHS last year (2012). GHS is a big system though, covering more than just occupational safety and health, so it’s possible (if not likely) that other US agencies will adopt portions of GHS for their jurisdictions (e.g. EPA, Consumer Product Safety Commission).

GHS affects three big areas – Classification, labeling, and (M)SDSs. Lets look at each. As for classification of hazardous substances, GHS changes the way that OSHA defines “hazards.” The basic concepts will be the same but the specifics will change. For example, the definition of a “flammable liquid” is basically the same – a chemical that can readily catch fire. However, the specific definition will change, from a liquid with a flashpoint less than 100 degrees F, to one with a flashpoint less than 140 degrees F. There are also some specific chemical hazards called out that many are not familiar with, such as “sensitizers.” Employees will have to get used to some of these new terms and definitions, especially if they work with these types of chemicals.

One area of GHS classification that has had much attention and some controversy is the use of categories for some of the hazards to denote how hazardous the material is. For example, acute toxicity has 5 hazard categories, with category 1 being the most toxic and category 5 being the least. Those who’ve been in the hazmat industry for a while will note that this is completely the opposite of the NFPA diamond, which notes hazards from 0 to 4, with 0 meaning no hazard and 4 the highest hazard. Unfortunately employees will just have to get used to the new system as its unlikely that either GHS or NFPA will change their respective systems anytime soon.

The second area that you’ll need to look at for GHS is the new labeling. Labels will have a specific format with required pictograms and wording. Now labels will still look somewhat different from one manufacturer to another. But the overall content should be very consistent, making the system much easier to use for identification of hazards. For more information and to see some examples of new labels, here’s a link to the OSHA site.

Finally, the new GHS standard took the “M” out of “MSDS.” That’s right we now call them SDSs (Safety Data Sheets). However, in exchange for giving up the “M” we got a new standardized format for SDSs. MSDSs are notoriously for being hit or miss sometimes. You’ll find some manufacturers do a great job with their MSDSs and others not so much. Plus the look and feel between MSDSs can be so different that it makes it hard to interpret them. This will all change under the SDSs. There will still be some variability and some bad SDSs but those should be the minority. SDSs will now have a required format with required wording and required sections. For example, if you want to know the flashpoint for the chemical, just look in section 9 of the SDS. Section 8 will have your PPE info. Section 5 will let you know which fire extinguisher to use. You’ll note that some MSDSs use a very similar format already, but not all. After GHS implementation all should have this format, making it easier to find the information you need.

Last, but certainly not least, as part of the adoption of GHS OSHA gave employers a timeline that they must follow to ensure they stay compliant. The timeline is as follows:

  • By December 1 of this year, all employers covered by the HazCom standard must train their employees on the new labels and SDSs. (That’s less than three months from now!)
  • By 2015 all manufacturers and distributors of chemicals in the US must be in compliance with GHS. This means classification, labeling, and SDSs must all be compliant.
  • By June 2016 all employers must have their alternative workplace labels (e.g. secondary labeling) compliant with the GHS standard. Primarily this will include classifying chemicals and ensuring that labels reflect any new classification. New training may also be required for newly identified hazards.

Now, we’ll be the first to say that its very possible that OSHA pushes back these compliance dates, given how much work everyone has to do to get into compliance. However, we do not recommend that you bank on OSHA pushing back the dates. This means you’ll need to get to work soon to start the compliance process. If you have questions about it let us know!