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First Person: Implementing Employee Safety Measures

Dr. Judy Agnew has more than 19 years of consulting experience and a Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis. She is recognized as a thought leader in the field of behavioral safety and performance management and is the author of Safe by Accident (with Aubrey Daniels) and Removing Obstacles to Safety (with Gail Snyder). Dr. Agnew partners with clients at Aubrey Daniels to create behavior-based interventions for maintaining safe work environments. In this issue, she shares her expertise with Area Development.

November 2010
Can a safe workplace be designed before the start of business in a new facility or should operations be ongoing in order to observe safety hazards and implement a company's safety procedures?
Agnew: A company can begin to establish a proactive safety culture by establishing leading indicators for safety before moving into a new building. How safety is measured determines how safety is managed.

Tell us what goes into creating safe physical working conditions.
Agnew: When designing workspaces, it is important to assess whether we are setting up people to be safe physically and do their jobs safely. For example, any piece of equipment is going to need repair and preventive maintenance. The design of that equipment determines if maintenance can be conducted in a safe manner. Ergonomics also needs to be considered. Will the design affect how employees stretch, twist, turn, and perform functions that require repetitive motion?

What are the most serious risks to personnel safety and process safety?
Agnew: Human behavior poses the most serious risk. We can create the safest physical environment with the best policies, procedures, equipment, safety controls, and safety training. When you add human beings, they will do things in ways you did not predict. Employees will bypass safety guards and take other safety short cuts. This is not done because employees want to get hurt; employees are attempting to get the job done efficiently, quickly, and with quality.

You have said "creating a truly safe workplace requires developing a culture where employees are willing to speak up." What are the steps to creating this kind of culture? What factors inhibit an employee from speaking up?
Agnew: Managers and supervisors only see a fraction of what goes on around safety. They need employees to report hazards and near misses. However, when employees speak up and nothing happens, they give up. This is called "extinction." In addition, the fear of being reprimanded or losing one's job causes employees to remain silent. If leaders want at-risk behaviors reported they cannot beat up employees when they report.

How can safety be encouraged when pressures and deadlines discourage its development?
Agnew: Managers talk about productivity but talk about safety less often. They do not want anyone to be hurt, but when they focus on production as a measure and an incentive, workers get the distinct impression that safety is not important. Managers need to say, "Here are some ways you can stay safe out there." Instead they often only say, "We need to produce this amount today." Put more focus on safe behavior and celebrate with your employees when they show improvement.

Why do managers make poor decisions about safety?
Agnew: They don't understand why people engage in at-risk behavior. They show employees a video on proper lifting and then are puzzled when they don't continue to lift properly. Until managers understand why at-risk behaviors occur, they cannot make good decisions to correct them. Some organizations think they lack the funds to study human behavior; however, organizations that take a look at the price of accidents realize that it costs more to ignore the science of behavior.

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