Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Risk – What are you afraid of?

Its Halloween week - the time when fear becomes fun. We watch scary movies and dress like scary ghouls of all sorts, all in the name of having a good time. And this holiday is big business, with it accounting for billions in retail sales every year.

As safety professionals, it’s somewhat ironic to see people make light of things that they probably should be scared of. After all, many incidents that we investigate or hear about involve people not taking the risks they face seriously enough. We see people doing things that they should have been too scared to do.

One difference between Halloween and the safety profession is that we don’t really talk about “fear” as much as we talk about “risk.” The whole idea of risk and how people relate to risks is an interesting one. The social sciences have studied risk for a long time and have come to one solid conclusion – people are natural risk assessors…we’re just naturally bad at it. Research suggests that people consistently do not take seriously very serious risks and are overly cautious with risks that they probably don’t have to worry about.

Take a Halloween example for instance – on Halloween night many parents will allow their kids to dress up and go out trick or treating, but before they allow their kids to eat the massive quantities of candy that they get, a certain number of parents will inspect that candy to look for signs of tampering. This is as a result of rumors of kids’ candy being poisoned. Consider though that there has been no significant evidence of any poisonings related to Halloween trick or treating.

But what other risks do kids face on Halloween? For example, we have kids roaming the streets, at night, typically while wearing dark clothing, on a night where there are many adult parties that lead to increased drinking and driving. Aren’t accidents involving motor vehicles a much higher, more documented risk? How many parents take significant steps to protect their kids from that risk?

Here’s the thing – these parents are stupid and they aren’t bad parents. They just suffer from a very common condition called humanity. The bottom line is that people make bad decisions based off of incomplete data sometimes.

Research suggests that numerous factors go into the average persons’ assessment of risk. Factors that can increase or decrease a person’s assessment of risk include:

  • Perceived ability to control circumstances
  • Familiarity with the risk
  • The ability to imagine the event happening (usually because of exposure in the media)
  • Perceived Suffering
  • Perceived Scale of Destruction
  • Fairness


Notice how very little of the above includes objective criteria of how often the event will happen.

What does all of this mean? Remember how many blogs ago we told you that deep down we are all safety professions? That’s true in a sense – if you feel like something is wrong there probably is a hazard there. However, we must not assume that if we feel like nothing is wrong that nothing is wrong and we definitely cannot assume that if we feel like something is wrong that nothing else is wrong besides that. When dealing with a world full of risks our gut instincts are our last line of defense. We must actively be assessing all of our risks in a conscious, directed way, otherwise we may exposed ourselves to more risks than we’re will to accept!


So, this Halloween, go ahead and have some fun with fear. Just remember to keep an eye out for the high risks that pose the greatest danger to us and those we love!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ergonomics – It’s a lot more than office chairs!


October is National Ergonomics Month, so we thought some discussion on the topic would be worthwhile. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “ergonomics”? If you’re like a lot of people you probably thought about something office related. Something like ergonomically designed chairs and keyboards. After all, the office is the number 1 place we find ergonomic hazards, right?

Unfortunately, that’s just not true. According to the latest injury data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 the industry sectors with the highest incident rates when it came to repetitive motion injuries were…manufacturing and construction. Wait a minute! With the increased reliance on computers shouldn’t there be an explosion of carpal tunnel injuries and other repetitive motion injuries? Apparently not. In fact, office settings are generally considered at low risk for ergonomic injuries, whereas other sectors, such as manufacturing and construction are high risk.

Now, this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t spend time and money reducing the risks to office workers. This is just to point out that ergonomics is much more than making sure office workers are safe. In fact, if we ignore ergonomic injuries, such as repetitive motion injuries and sprains and strains in other industries we may be ignoring one of the highest risk of injuries in these sectors.

So, what can we do to prevent ergonomic injuries? Well, ergonomics 101 teaches us that ergonomic injuries typically involve one or more of the legs of the ergonomics triangle – force, frequency, and posture.

The more force put on a particular body part (such as the edge of a work bench on the wrist, or the force exerted by the hand on the trigger of a power tool) the greater the risk.

The more frequent a task is performed (such as length of time standing, or someone picking up and moving parts off an assembly line all day) the greater the risk.

The more awkward the posture (such as having to twist to pick up boxes, or having to raise your arms up above your shoulder to paint a ceiling) the greater the risk.

The idea is that if we want to prevent ergonomics injuries in any industry sector we manipulate one or more of those legs of the triangle. And we do this using the hierarchy of controls that we talked about in an earlier blog. Here’s an example of a control for each control in the hierarchy:

Elimination – Design the work environment to utilize automation to avoid employees being exposed to high forces, high frequencies, and awkward postures.

Substitution – Reduce the forces, the frequencies, or the awkward postures. For example, consider vibration hazards in equipment and purchase equipment that has a low vibration risk.

Engineering controls – Use mechanical lifting devices, carts, and adjustable work stations to build ergonomic risk reduction into the environment.

Warnings – Ensure that heavy or awkward pieces of equipment or tools are marked either directly on the tools or in the area to alert employees of ergonomics risks.

Administrative controls – Use job rotation to reduce frequency of doing jobs with high ergonomic risks. Although, make sure you don’t rotate employees into a job with similar ergonomic risks, otherwise you’re not helping much at all.

PPE – Vibration absorbing gloves, or gloves for lifting to ensure proper grip. Note that back belts are not on the list, as there is no significant research we’re aware of to show that they are helpful and there is some research to suggest that they may be harmful.

Whatever you choose, just keep in mind the ergonomics is more than just looking in the cubicles in your organization. Remember, the root of the word “ergonomics” means “the study of work.” Look at all areas of your organization and find the high forces, high frequencies, and awkward postures that are increasing your risks. Then just act accordingly!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Safety Leadership by Design


Safety leadership plays a vital role in the prevention of incidents. This is nothing new to anyone in the safety field. Top management commitment is a foundational element of every safety management system I’m aware of and it has been that way forever. Without real leadership any safety system will fail.

Here’s the problem though – if we all know that safety leadership is so important we sure aren’t doing much about it.

Think about it – what is your organization doing to promote safety leadership? Culturally speaking, I’m not aware of a single college business curriculum (e.g. MBA, accounting, financing, or management) that includes any course material related to safety management. So right off the bat most organizational leaders walk in the door no training, experience, or background in safety. We don’t assess them for safety-related behaviors and competencies. We provide them with no training once we bring them on board. Then we expect them to be leaders in something so complex as a safety culture and get confused as to why they can’t override years of education, training, and experience in NOT thinking about safety first. The truth is for something so important as safety leadership we set our leaders up for failure.

In the safety world there’s a relatively new concept called Prevention through Design, which involves designing safety into organizational systems, equipment, and processes rather than waiting for the problems to show up and then dealing with them. I think we need to apply some Prevention through Design concepts to safety leadership. I think we need Safety Leadership by Design.

Safety Leadership by Design is about designing safety leadership into our organizational leadership systems. Safety Leadership by Design involves at least four important steps:
  1. Selection – We can’t change the college curriculum overnight, but we can use proven scientific methods to assess leaders for behaviors and competencies that have been shown through research to be associated with effective safety leadership. You can also measure their SafetyDNA. The great news is this is a two-for-one deal, because most of the competencies associated with effective safety leadership are also associated with effective leadership in other areas as well.
  2. Development – Once on board, leaders should be run through a safety training and development process. This should involve the development of skills and competencies related to safety, identification of safety blindspots, and training on the safety management system and safety culture within the organization.
  3. Accountability – Leaders must be held accountable for safety within the organization. Now there are many misconceptions about accountability. First off, I don’t just mean that leaders should be punished for poor safety performance. Rather, the accountability system should be designed to reward leaders for effective safety performance primarily, and only punish as a last resort. Second, the accountability system should be based off of leading indicators, not just lagging indicators, as we discussed in a previous blog.
  4. Safety Decision Design – Even the most highly trained, safety conscious person will still make mistakes from time to time. Your safety management system should identify those decisions that leaders will make (including both formal and informal decisions) that are safety-critical. These decisions should be designed with a “safety speed bump” in place that ensures that the decisions are not made rashly and that error precursors (e.g. distractions) are minimized during the critical period.

Safety Leadership by Design puts the appropriate emphasis on this critical element of your safety management system. It takes the luck out of safety leadership and provides a solid foundation on which to build safety excellence.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taming the Tiger - The Hierarchy of Controls


Last week’s blog discussed some observations we had upon coming back from the National Safety Council Congress and Expo in Chicago. They were related to the hierarchy of controls, which is a concept a lot of people don’t get or get wrong. So we thought it would be a good idea to go back and look a little deeper at the hierarchy of controls so we understand why it is so important.

So, first of all, the hierarchy of controls is a decision-making model that helps us when trying to reduce risks from a hazard. This of course implies that we’ve done our homework by identifying the hazard(s) and assessing the risk(s). The hierarchy of controls is meaningless without those steps happening first.

With that out of the way, lets take a look at the hierarchy of controls found in the ANSI/ASSE/AIHA Z10-2012 standard:

  1. Elimination
  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering Controls
  4. Warnings
  5. Administrative Controls
  6. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)


Now, lets assume that we wanted to protect ourselves and our employees from a hypothetical hazard – a tiger. Tigers are obviously dangerous and present a serious risk if not controlled. So, what’s the most effective way to protect ourselves from a tiger?

If you’re like most people, your first thought was to use a cage. But consider this – wouldn’t it be safer to eliminate the tiger by either removing it from the work place, or, better, not bringing in a tiger to begin with? Yes! As we’ve seen from new stories of tigers getting out of cages or cages being left open and people being hurt or killed by the tiger, cages don’t always work. But elimination, the top of the hierarchy of controls, always works!

If we can’t eliminate the tiger, because we need an animal, the next question should be – can we get by with a house cat? House cats can still be dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as a tiger. This is substitution of a risk with a lower risk. Again, this is a very effective control because substitution always works, if the substituted risk is well chosen (i.e. you don’t accidently introduce a worse risk).

Sometimes though we really need to have a tiger, so the next best thing is a cage, also known as an engineering control. Engineering controls often require some work on our part to ensure that they work, but less work than the below controls.

If we, for some silly reason, decide that we can’t have a tiger in a cage, then the next best thing is to keep people away from the tiger with warnings. Warnings appeal the innate human psychological need to not die! If a tiger comes your way you probably don’t need someone to tell you that its time to leave the area, you just need to ensure that you are aware when the tiger comes around. Hence a warning, such as an alarm system would work.

If, however, we want our people to interact with the tiger, but we don’t want the tiger to attack them, we likely should provide them with training on handling tigers. This is an administrative control. These controls attempt to control those behaviors that are not innate – i.e. they must be trained into the person and controlled by supervision.

Finally, if we have to have a tiger, and the tiger has to be out of the cage sometimes, and we have to have people around the tiger, and the tiger will sometimes attack the people then we have to rely on our last line of defense – PPE. We will put everyone in some sort of tiger protective suit (if there is such a thing).

Obviously the above example with the tiger is a little silly, but substitute any other hazard in there yourself and see how the hierarchy works. The principles are the same, even though the specifics change based on the hazards and the situations.

Why have a hierarchy of controls? Because it reminds us to get out of the rut of always defaulting to the “easiest” controls. When given a respiratory hazard most of us first think about respirators. When given a fall hazard most of us think about fall arrest harnesses. But the hierarchy reminds us that our first questions should be – Do we have to have that dangerous chemical here? Do we have to have people go up there? The higher up we go on the hierarchy we more the risks are reduced (or eliminated in some cases), the less human error we often get, the less training that is required, the less supervision is required, and the less life-cycle costs are involved.

Now, things are always more complex than we make it in a short blog. For example, many times we need to have multiple layers of controls to ensure that the risks are acceptable. But if we can start thinking deeper about the controls we implement and move our organizations higher up on the hierarchy the safer we’re going to make ourselves and our organizations.