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The Culture of Safety

POSTED 03/15/2004  | By: Jeff Fryman, Director, Standards Development

This past year I attended a conference where one of the speakers was asking the question ‘‘Do you have a Safety Culture?’‘  It was an interesting question that got me contemplating the significance of simply a safe work place versus a true environment or culture of safety.

I thought about it again on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon.  Standing next to the rim, separated by a low, easily defeated fence (or none at all) I realized that people assume safety, even when none exists.  Since no one was jumping the fence into the canyon, it made me wonder why workers feel compelled to defeat the safeguards we put around machinery to protect them.  Possibly the danger is not as obvious, or is it something more – a safety culture?  Yes, safety is a culture; people generally do not set out to do something unsafe.  Likewise people expect to be safe, and that includes at work.

How safe people are at work is the responsibility of everyone.  Some of us have more direct responsibility than others for work place safety like the employer and the safety personnel responsible for machine design.  Machines, any machine, present an inherent danger that must be corrected either by design or by installing safety devices.  The effectiveness of safety devices can easily reflect the culture of safety in a plant.  And there is more to safety than just installing safety devices.  How the device is integrated into the system is just as important if not more so because the logic used in an installation has to be correct.  Will the employee actually be safeguarded in the way he expects?

Accepting a culture of safety can indeed have far reaching consequences.  A case study presented at a recent National Robot Safety Conference highlighted the positive results of adopting a safety culture in your plant.  The example was from a major health care company which saw it’s then existing employee injury rate as counter to the image the company wanted to portray publicly and simply unacceptable.  Taking action from the top by aggressively adopting and enforcing a culture of safety throughout the entire organization, the company successfully reduced its injury rate.  More impressively, by doing so it saw a significant increase in productivity.  I don’t remember the exact number, but we are talking on the order of a 10% productivity increase.  I have previously stated that safe work cells are productive work cells and that productive work cells are safe work cells; but here was empirical proof that productivity and safety are strongly related.

I frequently have the chance to see other examples of safety cultures (or not).  I get phone calls and messages asking for help in understanding the ANSI/RIA R15.06-1999 robot safety standard.  From these calls I get an understanding of real issues facing industry today.  I also get the opportunity to observe differing views, which are also driving industry.  On one end is the company that has adopted a safety culture.  Their questions are related to how best to incorporate certain safety features, or how recognized hazards need to be safeguarded.  The other end of the spectrum is the call trying to find out ‘‘how little’‘ safety is necessary – the ‘‘I can’t’‘ do what I know is right so what can I do to be ‘‘ok’‘?

I have to empathize with the engineers who find themselves caught in these situations.  I know they are doing what they can within the parameters and resources their employers are allowing them.  I also empathize with the situation where a company is putting together a project for a client who is unwilling to accept the necessary safeguarding which has been identified.  This can ultimately lead to the moral and ethical dilemma of having to decide to ‘‘walk’‘ from a sale – a difficult choice at best.

‘‘What price safety?’‘ is not the question.  Yes, safety does have a price, but how do you determine it?  Is it the up-front cost of the safety device installed on a machine, or is it the lingering cost of an injury – medical costs, lost time, legal costs, and just plain suffering – to the employee and their co-workers.

Safety is a culture, a successful culture, and a culture your company should adopt!