Workers fall. And when they fall, some of them die. There were 887 work-related fall deaths in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the Department of Labor. Shattered bodies, shattered lives, shattered dreams. The cost in human tragedy is unimaginable.
How can this be happening? In the 21st century, the age when we were promised jet packs, surely someone could invent an anti-gravity fall-arresting gadget. Be that person. Change the world. Enjoy your billions.
But until someone invents the perfect fall safety system, let’s consider the reasons these tragedies continue into this post-modern era. With so much emphasis – and money – being invested in safety awareness, equipment, and training, why are we failing to protect our workers?
Construction Management Often Fails to Prioritize Safety
Nearly every business owner, manager, and supervisor will tell you they’re serious about preventing accidents. But are they really? Let’s assume very few business operators are truly callous or indifferent to worker safety (such people should be prosecuted, but that’s the subject for a different post.)
And of course, no worker wants to be injured. To emphasize this point, a safety supervisor we know asks this question in a daily morning meeting: “Who wants to volunteer to get hurt today?” Not a hand gets raised.
Yet, a disconnect occurs between the management’s message and workers’ internalizing safety as a priority. Why?
Often, this happens because the message is lost or diluted in the company’s main priority – productivity. This is understandable. If we don’t get the work done, we don’t get paid.
We lose business.
The message can come across as “Get the work done. And by the way, try to be safe.”
The Need for Speed May Conflict with Good Safety Practices
Responsible supervisors urge their workers to follow established procedures and avoid taking shortcuts. And yet taking shortcuts remains a significant cause of all accidents, not just falls. The reality is a worker may choose between following proper procedures and completing a task more quickly but at a higher risk of accidents.
Quick is good. Quick keeps the boss off your back, can mean higher pay, and can get you home in time for dinner or your child’s school or sports event. In a day-to-day working world, safe practices can too often take a back seat to speed.
Logistics and Language Barriers May Be Daily Challenges
Every effective safety program depends on excellent communication. Each and every person must understand their roles, rules, and responsibilities, as well as those of the other team members.
This can be a challenge where teams work at remote or isolated locations, such as new development projects well away from construction headquarters, or where meetings must be held outside or in facilities that are less than perfect, or where language barriers exist, a major problem in our increasingly diverse workforce.
Some Suggestions to Raise Safety Awareness and Commitment
Until futuristic, infallible safety devices are invented, if ever, having an effective safety program is a necessity. But how can owners and supervisors like you make this happen? Below are some suggestions for serious consideration.
Make safety a true priority. Do you conduct daily safety meetings, especially at the beginning of each day and shift, especially focusing on new workers? Do you reward your workers for excellent safety practices, not just as a group but as individuals?
Do you form buddy systems that challenge workers to encourage and support each other every day? Have you considered inviting family members to safety-related meetings to gain their support and reinforcement? All of these can have a strong impact on the creation of a real safety-minded culture.
Analyze your workplace. There is no one-size-fits-all program to end fall accidents. Every industry and company has its own conditions, culture, worker base and challenges. Trying to use a cookie-cutter program can be like cramming a wolverine into a shoebox. Certainly, use all the tools available through government and industry sources, but take the time to tailor them to your individual situation and needs.
Give your safety training impact! One industrial site held a monthly meeting, in which they played the same old, tired videos from decades earlier. “The Red Flag of Safety” was one of these, about a crew of workers who raced sports cars on the side.
In the video, all of them are negligent in their tasks, resulting in the wreck of their car and the injury of the driver. It was a good video in its time, but it’s a source of ridicule all these years later. Modern safety awareness products are available from a variety of sources. Some of the best of these are graphic and difficult to watch, but a depiction of the real aftermath of a tragic accident may be the best way to shake workers out of complacency.
Change the paradigm. Many industries and companies suffer from an entrenched culture of indifference to safety. In a cross-section of workers, some will follow safety rules regardless of the culture, and some will always defy the rules. But the majority will observe others and follow their lead.
To shift the culture to one that’s more effective, it may be necessary to drive your organization through a journey toward better safety – and workers must choose to come along for the voyage. Those who choose to undermine your efforts or resist change may not be suitable for employment in your business sector. There’s a safety adage that applies: “I would rather fire an employee than have to explain to their family why they won’t be coming home today.”
Is preventing fall-related accidents a necessity? Absolutely. Is it possible? Successful programs in the U.S. prove that it is. Like many important goals, effective safety programs require vision, commitment, and perseverance. But the payoff is measurable and well worthwhile.