Balancing Safety and Practicality in the Workplace
Workplace health and safety get a bad rap for being “one of those useless overhead costs.” Implementing safety policies seem straightforward, but in reality, it’s very difficult to strike the perfect balance between safety and practicality. Go overboard with caution, and safety becomes a hindrance to productivity. Excessively cut overhead and workplace hazards become a ticking time bomb. It’s a tricky problem for companies. Furthermore, the higher up you are on the management ladder, the more responsibility you bear.
The current situation of workplace safety
The impact of safety on a worker’s day-to-day routine can vary greatly depending on their responsibilities. A drafter may get the annual reminder of office hazards such as slip, trips, and falls. An electrician may require personal protective equipment (PPE) and a safety brief before beginning work every day. Naturally, riskier jobs require more safety precautions.
In an ideal world, robots would enter high risk areas in place of humans. While we’re moving towards smarter automation, hazardous jobs that require a real person still exist. In situations like these, workers rely on safe work practices to mitigate risk.
The multi-purposes of safety policies
It should go without saying that safety policies are designed to keep workers from harm. However, that’s not the only reason why they exist. Its purpose extends much further externally, and this is where problems arise.
From management’s perspective, safe work practices are also a testament to the company’s commitment to safety. Formally documented safety programs are often required by clients and the government. In fact, some clients will demand for a copy of a company’s safety policies before agreeing to contract work. The government can also place hefty fines if they deem that a company’s safety policies are inadequate.
The disconnect between safety rules and working safely
In theory, meeting external safety requirements and following safe work practices should be pretty straightforward. Simply establish corporate safety policies and apply conservative safety margins, right? Unfortunately in practice, it’s not that easy.
Corporate safety programs are often based on existing laws and regulations. While this keeps the company compliant with client and legal requirements, it often doesn’t consider the actual work being performed.
Labour laws were written to cover nearly all industries in its jurisdiction. Because of this, some rules are purposely vague and require personal judgement. For instance in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety states that employers must “take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe.” If a workplace accident were to occur and the employer’s precautions are deemed insufficient, it would put the company in hot water. This begs the question: what is considered reasonable? There’s no definite answer.
So why not add more safety margin and make the rules idiot-proof, just to be safe? Well, sometimes it’s not practical. Overly restrictive safety policies are at best a nuisance, and at worst a workplace obstacle. When workers come across unreasonable safety policies, they’re more likely to ignore it. At that point the safety policies are ineffective. Additionally, overly conservative safety measures can introduce additional hazards that otherwise wouldn’t have been an issue. For instance, a bomb suit can protect you from explosions, but its bulky design and thick layers can introduce tripping and heat stress hazards.
Creating a strong safety culture in the workplace
Striking a good balance between reasonable precaution and over restriction is easier said than done. Good communication between management and workers is crucial for developing and maintaining robust safety policies. Workers should voice their concerns when safety rules are not suited for their job. In return, managers should be transparent with changes to corporate safety policies. It’s an iterative process that requires continuous improvement as a work environment evolves.
As much as we would love to carry on with business as usual, safety is a crucial overhead cost. Safety should be everyone’s priority. Not only does it allow workers to return home safely every day, but it also keeps the company up and running. If neglected, the company could suffer severe legal and financial damages, putting everyone’s employment in danger.