In my difficult journey to wellness, I met others in hospitals and clinics with similar lapses in safety judgment resulting in catastrophic injuries. Some failed to wear safety harnesses and took back-breaking falls; others tried to move too much weight or fell asleep behind the wheel; some received horrific burns or lost fingers from manufacturing equipment. Every one of them was exposed one way or another to safety training prior to their accident. Every one of them, like me, admitted they knew better.
Millions of Lapses
For workplace injuries, there is a veritable “Stat Machine” kept by alphabets of agencies: the National Safety Council (NSC), CDC, OSHA, Workers Comp and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The experts tell us that there are at least 12,600 serious injuries each day, 4.6 million a year, and tragically more than 5,000 fatalities each year. The industries with the most injuries are the service industries, e.g., police and firefighters, paramedics, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and maintenance.
WHY so many make poor split-second decisions became my 20-year obsession, first as a patient and later as a safety speaker. The human factors, although brought to light with the latest in neuroscience data, are not properly addressed in the work environment on a large enough scale to stop them from happening.
Why do workplace accidents happen? Why are safety posters, training, and lectures frequently ignored? What are the effects of stress, overwhelming life pressures, repetitive tasks with little relief, or working too much overtime on workplace accidents?
We are not Machines
According to the American Institute of Stress, 65 percent of workers said that workplace stress contributed to their workplace injuries to some extent, with more than 10 percent describing stress as having a major effect that directly led to their injuries.
Symptomatic of that stress, “feeling overwhelmed” can cover an entire range of pressures. It may affect the paramedic working too many overtime shifts or the residential construction worker trying to satisfy a relentless schedule. Personal or emotional struggles such as divorce, family illness or death also contribute to the lack of safe job performance.
Psychology Today offers overwhelmed workers solutions such as: “Give your mind a chance to wander.” Do you have any idea how catastrophic that “stress-relief solution” can be for a crane operator, train engineer or the person mixing toxic solutions in a steel mill? Other de-stressing solutions offered include taking yoga breaks or bringing therapy dogs into the workplace. While those aren’t terrible ideas for a marketing manager, they can’t apply to the long-haul trucker. They need practical solutions to destress that fit within their job load.
The U.S. Department of Labor relates, “Worker fatigue increases the risk for illnesses and injuries and research indicates that working 12 hours per day is associated with a 37 percent increased risk of injury.”
No surprise that workers forced to add hours are more frequently injured on the job. It has been shown that fatigued workers are more likely to get into motor vehicle accidents on their way home from an exhausting day. Some of my safety clients relate their workers are turning to alcohol and drugs on the job site as a way to manage stress during long shifts. Others go into a repetitive ‘programmed’ response mode while working long hours and lose focus on what is happening at the moment.
The Cost of Disengagement
With the constant pressure to meet deadlines and produce, companies are pressuring workers to overproduce without taking into account the human factors involved in keeping them safe. They might receive a monetary pat on the back for “producing,” but for the sake of safety, they need much more.
Many workers lack a safety mindset and it’s not always their fault. It’s not that they lack safety training but in too many workplaces, the key is that the worker is not viewed as a “whole” person, but as an extension of a machine.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) talked about the cost of disengagement. This happens when workers are pushed to the limits with nothing to show for their effort but stress, overwhelming depression, and if lucky, occasional safety videos in a conference room. Said HBR, “Disengaged workers had 37 percent higher absenteeism, 49 percent more accidents and 60 percent more errors and defects. They experienced 18 percent lower productivity.”
Whose organizational job is it to have a safety mindset, to have a positive safety vision and to truly care about the men and women laboring anywhere in the field? It is everyone’s job. It is the determination that everyone - everyone- must share a common safety commitment.
Having the Vision to Care about Safety
When management sets worker safety as its highest priority, magic happens. The newsletter of the Maine Department of Labor echoing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics conveyed that “A safe and healthy workplace attracts and retains quality employees. It's an asset to a community, operates more efficiently and enjoys a healthy bottom line. The business and the workers thrive in a safe, healthy, respectful and caring environment.”
In the hospital and rehab wards, I met severely injured people who confided they felt no one in the organization cared, so why should they? It is a tragic thing to realize that many of the same people who make the organization work feel their contributions are completely unappreciated.
Let’s commit to having a shared safety vision, to be determined to recognize it’s not them and us, but all of us. It took many people to help me to my feet. Every day my commitment is to help someone else stand up to the challenge of a safe work environment – or to keep them from falling.
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