CHICAGO — “Safety first” has become the mantra for many workplace environments, so it goes without saying that the safety and well-being of employees remains a top priority for many companies today. Is yours among them?
Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Fisher & Phillips LLP, in conjunction with the Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA), recently hosted a webinar covering how companies can improve their safety program.
Foulke’s experience speaks for itself. In addition to serving as co-chair of Fisher & Phillips’ Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group, he’s served as assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and was appointed by President George W. Bush to head OSHA from 2006 to 2008.
There are currently no ergonomics standards, Foulke says, and OSHA has proposed including musculoskeletal disorders in its 300 Logs. OSHA currently utilizes the General Duty clause to issue ergonomic citations, he explains, which can be more costly than other types of citations.
“They’re going to be asking for your audits, and if your audits identify ergonomics issues, then you now have knowledge of that and it makes it easier for them to establish a General Duty clause violation,” says Foulke. “And if you have knowledge and did nothing about it, then arguably, it’s a willful violation, so now you go from a maximum of $7,000 for [a serious violation] to $70,000 for [a willful violation].”
METRIC FOR SAFETY
With these precautions in mind, Foulke identifies one metric that business owners can use to avoid repeating a violation. While many owners look to lagging indicators—including lost-time injury rates and worker’s compensation—as a tool to measure workplace safety improvement, Foulke explains that such indicators can actually exhibit weaknesses in a workplace safety program.
Instead, he recommends business owners look toward leading indicator tools, such as a job safety analysis, in which they can identify workplace hazards to increase employee training and supervision. And although there are many leading indicator tests that business owners can look at, Foulke says that studying near-misses is one of the most important.
“If you’re not doing the root-cause analysis, and determining what actually caused that near-miss, then eventually somebody else is going to get injured as a result of that,” he says.
OTHER AVENUES OF SAFETY
In addition to refining workplace safety standards, Foulke also touched upon developing emergency action plans for other types of accidents that can occur.
Creating an emergency action/response plan focusing on natural disasters, pandemics and man-made disasters, with an emphasis on evacuation plans and exit/egress compliance, is one of the other requirements OSHA looks at during inspections, according to Foulke.
He also addressed the health and well-being of employees, saying that workplace injuries can be the result of an employee’s health and fitness. He particularly highlighted the obesity problem among American teenagers, saying, “Because of their lack of physical activity, they’re going to get injured quicker and their recovery time is going to be longer.”
Developing a safety program, which also focuses on health and wellness, is the solution, Foulke advises, and not having one in place can ultimately cost a company a lot of money in the long run.
“If you don’t develop a comprehensive wellness program for your facilities, and really address obesity...you’re going to go out of business,” Foulke warns. “Just imagine [what the] direct cost is going to be—healthcare costs and workers’ compensation costs, it’s going to be huge.”
The overall cost of an injury to an employee can be “very dramatic,” he says, but having a safety program in place can actually become a “profit center” for a company.
“If we have a comprehensive safety management system…we’re going to reduce our injuries and illnesses and fatalities, which in turn, is going to reduce our worker’s compensation costs,” Foulke says. “We’re going to be productive and more competitive because of the savings that we [have] there.”
SAFETY AT COMPANY CORE
Ultimately, for Foulke, ensuring that safety is top priority in a company’s core values is the integral part of establishing or refining a workplace safety program.
“If you’re going to have safety as No. 1, it has to be core value,” he says. “And what that means as a core value is that we do not do the job, unless it’s done safely. If it cannot be done safely, you do not do the job.”
Not having safety at the core, according to Foulke, creates a domino effect in the workplace. “In order to have great productivity, efficiency and quality, you have to have great safety. If you don’t have great safety, someone gets injured. If someone gets injured, they don’t show up for the job the next day. If they don’t show up for the job the next day, their productivity is zero.”
Creating or refining a workplace safety program should involve everyone in the company, Foulke says, from front-line employees to the corporate level. “When upper management makes it clear that safety is a priority, that it’s a core value, it drives all the way down.”
Involving employees in the safety management process not only prevents a company from facing other legal problems, it ultimately harmonizes the relationship between employer and employee.
“If you show employees that you care, then you may not get a union organizing drive against you, or you may not get someone filing a class-action age discrimination case, because they feel like you do care about them, and therefore you’re trying to treat them right,” Foulke says.