Safe and sound Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Workplace safety is an important issue because it’s in the best interest of both employers and employees. Protecting the safety and health of employees is a basic responsibility of any employer.

“Safety shouldn’t be an ‘add-on’ for a company,” says David M. Weir, president, UPMC Work Partners, which is part of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. “A safety policy should be incorporated into a company’s standard operating procedure.”

Creating a culture of safety requires a commitment to not only reduce accidents but to also actively promote safety throughout the year. Implementing workplace safety is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good business, both in terms of the health and productivity of employees and money saved on a reduction of accidents and related costs.

Smart Business talked with Weir about what employers need to know about workplace safety.

What are the most important things businesses need to do to implement good safety practices in the workplace?

Most companies have safety policies and plans, but for many of them, those documents are little more than dust collectors rather than a functional part of an organization’s operations. At many companies, the safety manager is an important person only when a major accident occurs. Companies need to understand this: The ‘right way’ to do business is the ‘safe way’ to do business. You need to do what you can to create a culture of safety within a company to prevent accidents, not just to respond when an accident occurs.

What are some of the factors that can work against the establishment of a good work-place safety program?

The first would be not being specific in spelling out the roles and responsibilities in terms of safety for everyone, from the top of an organization down to the employee level. Second, in too many cases, a company’s work safety plan is not an actual working document and that can result in a lack of enforcement of the proper safety procedures. To create a safe workplace, a company has to elevate employee safety as a core value of the company, make a real commitment to it, and demonstrate visible support of that value.

To make sure safety programs are being implemented properly, employers should ask the following: Is safety talked about at management meetings? Are managers evaluated in part by the safety record of their departments? Is safety included as part of new-hire orientation? Is there specific training for more hazardous work environments? Is there adequate support in terms of staffing, equipment and training time for safety initiatives? All of these things need to be in place and should be measured.

Is some kind of punishment necessary in order for safety practices to be properly enforced in a workplace?

Disciplinary action for safety violations should be handled in a similar fashion as the company manages other policy violations. Typically, a progressive disciplinary action is used. However, any blatant disregard for safety practices should be dealt with quickly and with significant consequences and/or possible termination.

Does a company face liability issues when it comes to workplace safety?

Yes. Many companies may have sufficient policies and procedures in place, but that does not excuse them from all liability. For example, were the policy and procedures in place, but never really enforced? If that is the case and an accident occurs as a result, that could be legally damaging. Was a hazardous situation identified but never addressed? Again, if that were the case and an accident were to be the result, the company could have potential criminal liability.

Where should employers start when implementing workplace safety?

First, they need to be aware of all the regulatory agencies — local, state and federal — that have jurisdiction over their business. These would include such agencies as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Transportation (DOT) and agencies that oversee specific industries like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Employers should also know that if they need help with safety issues, they can find resources online from a number of federal and state agencies, such as OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In addition, a company’s insurance broker and insurer should be good sources of information on this subject.

DAVID M. WEIR is the president of UPMC Work Partners. Reach him at (412) 454-8720 or weirdm@upmc.edu.