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When asked if they’re doing enough to minimize risk and protect employees, most employers would probably answer yes. While it is very unrealistic that every company is making the utmost effort at safety management, it is easy to see why they might think so. Factors such as reasonable expenditures on safety and insurance or a lack of major safety incidents might paint a picture of a relatively low-risk workplace.
The truth is often murkier than that. There are many different approaches to occupational health and safety, and their priorities and features vary by company and industry. However, the most successful programs often have one thing in common: an integrated safety management system. This kind of system helps put safety standards into practice, but it also helps evaluate and reduce many risks of doing business, from high insurance costs to compliance issues and fines. Here’s why a safety management system is a key to reducing risk, managing cost, and promoting a dynamic safety culture for all.
First of all, what makes a safety management system so effective at managing risk? It’s all about integration. A systems-based approach to workplace safety connects all relevant organizational departments in service of safety. While a safety management system is primarily concerned with occupational health and safety, it succeeds by integrating other branches of the organization into this process.
How does this work in practice? For instance, financial risk analysts are able to communicate with the managers who oversee the safety hazards that impact those financial risks. These departments can share strategies and synchronize their individual approaches to the problem, rather than working at odds with each other. A systems approach to workplace safety recruits all relevant parts of an organization to achieve the organization’s occupational health and safety goals.
This coordinated effort means that a safety management system helps offset many different types of risks. It improves tracking of relevant safety data, including training and documentation, which contributes to informed decision-making. It also encourages a proactive, rather than reactive approach to safety, which ultimately improves resource allocation and reduces costs.
Monitoring compliance is an indispensable feature of most occupational health and safety programs. However, relying on compliance alone is both ineffective and incredibly risky in the long run. Regulations can be very slow to change, which means they do not always perfectly correspond to the conditions on the ground. Even if an organization rigorously follows compliance standards, incidents or injuries can still occur. According to safety expert and consultant Pam Walaski, compliance is only the starting point for a strong safety management system. The end goal is to build upon compliance standards with specific and relevant metrics that ensure worker safety. This approach goes hand-in-hand with the most recent OSHA guidelines for occupational health and safety programs, which emphasize preventive rather than reactive behaviors.
For example, when an incident occurs, employers must file a report describing the details and cause. This step ensures that employers are compliant with incident-reporting regulations. However, as many safety professionals know, safety-related incidents do not happen in a vacuum. In other words, there is often more to an incident than the isolated details of the case. An organization with a strong safety management system will go beyond compliance requirements to identify the conditions and precursors that led to the incident in the first place. Walaski notes that common precursors, such as non-routine work or the presence of contractors, can open the door for preventive interventions into potentially risky situations.
A systematic approach uses compliance only as the baseline while asking deeper questions and identifying patterns that lead to poor safety outcomes. An organization that fails to identify and address the conditions and precursors that lead to occupational hazards is at serious risk of reoccurring safety incidents.
One of the common costs of doing business in any industry is insuring employees against injury and illness sustained on the job. Determining premiums for workers’ compensation insurance has a lot to do with a company’s safety culture and safety record. On the one hand, poor risk assessment leads to employers spending an inadequate or inaccurate amount on insurance, leaving employees unprotected and employers vulnerable to lawsuits. In addition, poor evaluation and follow-up on safety incidents diminish a company’s safety record, leading to higher insurance premiums.
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A safety management system addresses these discrepancies by integrating cost reduction and risk assessment. This approach emphasizes prevention and safe practices, ensuring that employees are protected from harm and fully covered in the event of an incident. On the employer’s side, improved risk assessment means that insurance premiums correspond to the company’s safety record.
There is nothing more disruptive to productivity than a sudden interruption due to faulty equipment or a hazardous spill. Fortunately, a safety management system can keep track of even these most basic housekeeping tasks that are the foundation of all other productive activities.
How does this happen? Because so many safety incidents are the result of human decision-making or error, addressing the problem requires minimizing these risks. An integrated safety management system creates processes that reduce the likelihood of human error or improvisation. For example, if there is a spill, workers should not have to wonder how to properly handle or dispose of toxic materials and waste.
Maintaining a safe and clean working environment makes random inspections or audits a lot easier to deal with. Needless to say, diligence in this area also has a financial payoff, preventing increases in insurance premiums resulting from unsafe practices. Without a safety management system, a company is at tremendous risk from the safety and financial consequences of equipment failure, mishandling of hazardous waste, and improper safety procedures.
Recordkeeping is an instrumental part of a strong safety culture, but it is also one of the more tedious tasks of occupational health and safety work. Poor or inconsistent recordkeeping poses a major risk to the organization. Without a recorded history of safety incidents and responses, it is much more difficult to prove that the company took proper safety precautions and implemented corrective action in response to incidents.
A safety management system provides documentation of individual incidents, as well as a pattern of safety practices. This information can be readily accessible if needed on short notice, and it can provide critical evidence in the event of a lawsuit. While good safety practices should reduce the likelihood of lawsuits in the first place, a “paper trail” can bolster the company’s case by providing a track record of good safety practices.
Without a doubt, employees who are either improperly trained or not caught up on training can pose a serious risk to their organization. Lapses in employee training are especially concerning in industries that are high-risk or subject to frequent regulatory updates. Training often suffers due to the sheer logistics of monitoring training for hundreds or thousands of employees, who are at different stages of employment or have different training needs. Unfortunately, pieces of training are not always up-to-date or relevant or are delivered in a classroom setting that is disconnected from the hands-on work that employees perform every day.
OSHA training violations can carry a fine of over $13,000, so it is easy to see why failure to properly train employees presents a major financial risk.
How does a safety management system tackle these training challenges? The most effective systems can assign pieces of training to relevant employees, track completion, and monitor re-training or supplementary training schedules. An integrated safety management system also helps facilitate hands-on training that goes beyond the classroom. In this context, employees are taught how to recognize and respond to risks that occur on the job. This approach empowers employees to perform risk evaluation every day, on their own and gives them the tools to respond to and minimize risk. All of these different elements of training can be used to document employees’ overall job preparedness, which is another factor that ultimately helps lower insurance costs.
Having separate, standalone safety standards or departments can pose serious risks for an organization’s occupational health and safety efforts, while also handicapping the prevention and response to safety incidents. One of the hallmarks of a safety management system is that risk management is a core component of the system’s design, rather than a separate external variable. When risk management is woven into workplace safety, there is a higher likelihood of successfully evaluating and addressing safety risks. This means identifying not just the causes, but the conditions and precursors that give rise to incidents, illness, and injury.
A safety management system also promotes strategic communication between different areas of the organization. The sharing of risk evaluation data contributes to a more coordinated and holistic approach to safety management. A safety management system recognizes the importance of compliance while also stressing continuous risk evaluation and internal accountability as equally important elements of occupational health and safety. Integrating the entire OHS infrastructure bridges the gap between external standards and local metrics reduce risk and promote a strong safety culture.