Big companies are expanding their safety programs to their office settings – so says a recent, nationally published article. The stated goal: Get everyone thinking about safety. Is this really going to help?
The other day, a colleague forwarded to me a link to a Wall Street Journal article, “Safety cops patrol the office for high heels.”
The gist of it: Safety is no longer just for the manufacturing plants, oil fields, slaughter houses, construction sites, warehouses, etc. Joe and Jane Officeworker are also now expected to remember that “Safety is No. 1.”
The piece states:
“Now field-inspired safety protocols are migrating to the office, where hazards include dripping umbrellas, the height of high heels and hot cups of coffee.”
We’ll say upfront that we don’t mean to make light of potential hazards caused by people shaking off their rain-soaked umbrellas indoors over a tile floor. We know it’s a recipe for a serious injury.
What’s interesting about the article is that some of the large companies mentioned have had their fair share of serious, multiple-fatality incidents just in the last decade.
So companies that had significant safety failures are now working so hard on safety that they’re bringing their programs into office settings?
Does this seem like too much of a good thing to you? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, a federal safety agency has warned about this syndrome more than once.
Sweating the small stuff
A U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers chastised BP and its business partner Transocean for focusing on just this sort of thing. The CSB report said the two companies were sweating the small stuff while major process safety hazards were going unchecked.
On the day of the explosion in 2010, BP and Transocean had held an event to praise workers for a low rate of personal injuries. We’re talking hours before the fatal explosion.
And it’s not like no one warned BP about this previously. At its Texas City refinery where 15 workers were killed in an explosion in 2005, contract workers had just returned to temporary trailers at the plant after attending a celebratory lunch commending an excellent personal injury record. Shortly after the lunch, the explosion occurred, killing workers in the trailers.
BP isn’t mentioned in the Wall Street Journal article, but other large companies with recent safety disasters are:
- At Chevron, employees can stop work anytime they see a safety hazard. The article mentions how an employee stopped production of a safety video after noticing props on the ground that could be a tripping hazard. In 2013, Cal/OSHA fined Chevron $963,200 for 25 citations connected to the Aug. 6, 2012 fire at the company’s refinery in Richmond, CA. This is the highest penalty in Cal/OSHA’s history. One worker received minor injuries in the fire, and about 200 local residents sought medical help for respiratory problems. The CSB said there was no evidence the company conducted an inspection within a year of the fire on the section of pipe that ruptured.
- At Nestle SA, employees – including those in corporate offices – are expected to identify two safety hazards each month, which can include something like a person holding elevator doors open. On Dec. 16, 2011, an employee at Nestle subsidiary Tribe Mediterranean Foods was cleaning a machine used to make hummus when he became caught in it and was crushed to death between two rotating augers. OSHA issued 18 citations to Tribe for a total of $702,300 in fines. Seven of the violations were egregious willful citations for lack of training on lockout/tagout – one for each untrained worker exposed to the hazard. Tribe initially said it would contest 17 of the citations but eventually accepted all of them and agreed to pay $540,000 in OSHA fines.
- At Skanska, a builder, 1,400 employees who work at the company’s corporate offices do stretches every morning. Back on May 6, 2008, a Skanska employee fell through an uncovered hole about 37 feet above the ground and died from his injuries. This was on a project to renovate a bridge in New York City. OSHA issued a serious violation fine of $3,500 for failure to provide appropriate fall protection. Skanska appealed the fine, arguing it provided fall protection equipment to employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld the fine. OSHRC said Skanska’s written policy suggested there were times when employees weren’t required to tie off. The commission also said the company didn’t effectively enforce its own safety rule.
The WSJ article also points out not everyone is impressed with these companies’ office safety programs. The director of health and safety for the United Steelworkers called these types of office programs “just distraction.”
It seems some employees might not be taking the programs completely seriously. One office employee who is required to find safety hazards on a regular basis wrote that to mitigate choking hazards during lunch she would “take small bites and avoid bread.”
Safety programs have finite resources. So, just as in the BP cases, the question becomes this: Are those resources being used wisely by spending them on office safety programs?
What do you think? Have you experienced situations in which a company’s safety focus was misdirected? Let us know in the comments.