The number of technical protection measures and safety rules have grown in recent years, but accidents still occur frequently in industrial settings. As a thorough analysis of the causes of accidents at work reveals, very often accidents are related to unsafe behaviour and a disregard for safety rules. The consequences are not only negative for the injured employees, who may suffer from long term physical confinements, but also for the companies that employ them.
The most important goal for all industrial companies is therefore to find an effective way to reduce, or even better to completely avoid accidents at work. Most companies currently try to achieve this by conducting safety instructions and controls, as well as audits on a regular basis – at least once per year. In many cases, however, the management comes to realise that these measures do not bring the desired effects. What is the reason for this?
The key to success lies in changing people’s attitudes towards safe behaviour by creating more awareness of the importance of safety, and by establishing a companywide, fair safety culture. This is only possible through a constructive and consistent leadership approach.
Safety walks and safety talks have proven to be very efficient tools of behaviour based safety at work. They help to break routines and habits that often make us blind to risks in our daily work situations.
Safety culture – a leadership task
Paul, a newly hired employee at a wire production plant, received a short introduction to his new workplace in the quality control area. To start with, he was asked to remove insulation with a pair of sharp scissors. The company had introduced a ‘protection glove plan’ a few months before. On his first day at work, Paul was equipped with a pair of safety gloves.
Arriving at his workplace, his foreman briefly explained to him how the insulation had to be cut and how many pieces per hour he was expected to finish. Only two days later Paul had a severeaccident – he cut the tendon between his thumb and the palm of his hand. He will probably lose the function of his left thumb.
He never used the gloves, finding them “uncomfortable and too thick to work with.” None of his colleagues had mentioned to him that the use of safety gloves was absolutely mandatory – but none of his colleagues wore them, either.
This example underlines the meaning of developing safe practises among employees in industrial companies. It is one thing to implement safety rules, but it is even more crucial to make sure they are obeyed and accepted.
Protective gloves are standard equipment in personal protection at work – for a good reason. The hands of workers are the parts of the body that are most exposed to harm. The German National Compensation Insurance Society (DGVU) has ascertained that more than one third of all accidents at work result in hand injuries.
About 50 percent of all hand injuries are so-called ‘skin-deep scratches’; that is, lacerations, bruises and cuts or wounds stemming from stabs. A great problem, however, lies in those accidents causing deeper injuries. In this case, if the tendons or nerves seem to be affected, the injured person should immediately consult a specialist or surgery practice.
All important nerves, blood vessels and tendons lie close to each other in the hands. Even small cuts, which may look harmless from outside, can cause severe damage. The consequences can be numbness, paralysis and in the long term, restriction to movement.
Nearly 90 percent of all hand injuries in companies happen as a result of human error. A fact many people do not know is that apart from tight deadlines, distractions and the wrong use of work equipment, routine procedures can also lead to severe accidents. “A great number of accidents are caused by neglecting safety rules at work,” said Thomas Kolbinger, Head of Security at DGVU. “If employees abided by the rules consistently, we would have fewer incidents.”
This significant and high number suggests that it is possible to prevent accidents; for example, by organising labour correctly, installing appropriate security in machines, instructing employees properly in using protective gloves and conducting audits and training. Regular audits and training are essential to achieve a change of awareness and behaviour, especially when employees are engaged in monotonous activities.
Risk perception and routine
As many accidents happen during routine work, it is necessary to take a closer look at the general psychological principles of risk perception. How do we act in certain situations and what is the reason for neglecting dangers and acting carelessly?
It is worthwhile analysing some basic rules of risk perception:
- People have a subjective perception of risks
- People like to solve problems and focus more on solving the problem than on the existing dangers (objective risks)
- People believe in the illusion of their own invulnerability
In psychology there is a clear differentiation between conscious and unconscious behaviour. It is generally agreed by psychologists that about 10 to 15 percent of our actions are conscious, the greater part – about 80 percent – are carried out in a routine way.
Conscious versus unconscious behaviour
How do we behave when we act consciously? What does this imply?
We are highly focused. All of our senses are alert. We are able identify risks for what they are and are fully aware of the potential consequences of a given situation.
Conscious behaviour is reserved to only few situations in our daily life. Can you still recall the very first time you drove a car on your own? How did you feel? Probably slightly nervous, attentive and very concentrated. There were many things to concentrate on at the same time – the traffic around you, the mirrors, gears, clutch, brake, which way to go to. This is a situation in which almost everybody acts consciously.
Routine behaviour and potential risks
The more frequently we deal with risky situations, the less dangerous we tend to regard them. They become routine and we do not perceive potential risks any more. We no longer focus on the situation and its possible consequences. We are not focused, our minds wander and we act on autopilot.
Consider your driving habits today. Have you ever experienced a feeling of not knowing how you got to your destination after a routine drive? This is due to habit, which comes with a certain loss of perception for the situation we are used to. As human beings we are able survive certain situations without mishaps. It only becomes risky if we act routinely and carelessly. It is therefore the company’s health and safety services main responsibility to repeatedly draw attention to particular risks.
From Paul’s hand accident we conclude that he wanted to reach the targeted number of pieces in time. He completely lost his natural awareness of the risk of cutting himself, after he had grown familiar with quite simple task.
Read about risk assessing RPE and asking the right questions:
Behaviour-based audits as successful strategies
Safety inspections are often associated with finger pointing and looking for mistakes – usually not accompanied by polite feedback, but by surveillance and searching for errors in the actions of employees. If safety is of true value to a company, it should be controlled not only by the health and safety service, but in addition by all senior managers.
The main focus of audits should be behaviour, challenge, commitment of employees to seeking solutions and the increase of safety awareness. Because of these aspects, companies often implement new types of control and define specific targets for them. Inspections and personal visits are the main tools for defining these objectives. They should be conducted considering the following aspects:
- Visits on shop floors should be performed by senior managers
- The duration of visits should be kept to a minimum, but they should be carried out regularly
- Line managers should get employees directly involved in the dialogue
- All visits should focus on behaviour and be guided by concrete questions, such as ‘How are operational instructions put into practice’? ‘How are unexpected situations dealt with’? ‘Do agreements arise from activity related risk assessments and are they compliant with the company’s rules’?
- Since the aim is to change behaviour, no blame should be put on employees
- The inspections should consist of two sections – an observation and an interview section
- The results of these sections should be documented and open points have to be dealt with quickly
Principles of safety talks
In every company many training sessions are held, during which a lot of information is provided. Transfer of knowledge, e.g. on the applicable personal protection, does not automatically lead to using it in practise. Neither does it generally change an individual’s behaviour into good habits.
Also, the information given by the supervisor does not necessarily arouse major interest in the audience, as most staff believe they have known the material being taught for years. It is therefore essential to involve employees actively by leading discussions on safety, for example. In discussing the practical problems of work processes in safety talks, the employees have the opportunity to reflect on their own actions and break their routines.
According to the saying ‘the one who asks, is leading’, the role of the supervisor during the safety talks is to ask questions. He/she does not merely provide information or some training, but should be interested in receiving valuable information from employees. This way the supervisor shows interest in the employees’ points of view and treats them as experts in their specific areas.
Communication rules for safety talks
During safety talks it is important that supervisors create a positive atmosphere in which employees feel free to speak about their practical experiences at work. There are some basic rules which help to generate a good communication setting:
- Talk to your partner in a fair way, in which you would wish you to be treated
- Don’t hold anything back – be open
- Don’t give your partner the feeling that he/she is subject to knowledge testing
- Don’t reprimand, ask for the reasons something has happened
- If there are weak points, write them down and ask about the reason for such behaviour
- Work out proposals for a solution
- Motivate your partner with questions in order to obtain comprehensive information
Employees should be active, discuss, exchange information and experiences, analyse challenges and their causes and be able to define the rules of conduct. This way the rules they determine are their own rules, which they are more likely to accept.
The subjects of the safety talks are specific activities or tasks employees may have performed every day for many years.
Through the conversation positive habits can be developed which comply with applicable laws and regulations and employees will not want to contradict the safety rules.
As a result they will become aware of danger again, they will work safely and won’t put themselves or co-workers in dangerous situations – they get rid of ‘bad’ routines.
The significance of positive role models should not be underestimated. In acting correctly, the worker functions as role model, thus helping to convince colleagues to follow the safety rules as well.
During the talks and audits, employees and supervisors are also able to read existing regulations. Employees may also notice risks which may not have been included in the risk assessment. They are then able to point them out and offer solutions. Successful strategies for prevention
Hand injuries constitute a significant proportion of all injuries at work. They are very serious and can require treatment over a long period of time. Sometimes the effects of damaged skin on the hands can only be felt as time passes; for example, workers who don’t wear protective gloves on a construction site will suffer from a rough skin after a while, or discoloration and burns may appear.
Safety walks and safety talks are important strategies in supporting technical solutions and for promoting the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for hand and arm protection in order to avoid accidents in industrial companies.
They help to create awareness of dangers at work – even in everyday routines – and by involving the management and workers they increase the general acceptance of obeying a company’s safety rules.
Published: 28th Jan 2014 in Health and Safety International