Safety in the Workplace

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Safety in the Workplace


Workplace safety is one of the biggest concerns of employers today. A wide range of government regulations covers workplace safety, yet workplace accidents are increasingly common. Organizations have both a moral and a legal responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their members. Organizational practices that promote safety can also help a company establish competitive advantage by reducing costs, which include lost time, damaged equipment and materials, and worker's compensation payments.


Despite laws designed to ensure safety at the workplace, U.S. companies' accident rates are alarmingly high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) statistics for 2006 show that there were over 4,000,000 nonfatal workplace injuries in private industry and nearly 6,000 work-related fatalities. According to one estimate, employees lose roughly 80,000,000 workdays annually from workplace injuries.

The causes of workplace injuries can be divided into three categories: employee error, equipment insufficiency, and procedure insufficiency. Examples of causes falling within each category include the following:

  • Employee errormisjudged situations; distractions by others; neuromuscular malfunctions; inappropriate working positions; knowingly using defective equipment
  • Equipment insufficiencylack of appropriate equipment; safety devices being removed or inoperative; lack of such things as engineering controls, respiratory protection, and protective clothing
  • Procedure insufficiencyfailure of hazard-warning procedures; inappropriate procedure for handling materials; failure to lock out or tag out; lack of written work procedures


Federal laws regulate the safety practices of most organizations in an attempt to prevent or reduce the incidence of workplace injuries. The following discussion is limited to laws that affect a majority of organizations; there are, however, additional laws that cover particular segments of the workforce such as government contractors or workers in the mining, transportation, nuclear power, and food and drug industries.

Occupational Safety and Health Act. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging legislation in the area of workplace safety. It applies to nearly all U.S. workplaces. The act aims to ensure safe working conditions for every American worker by setting and enforcing workplace safety standards, promoting employer-sponsored educational programs that foster safety and health, and requiring employers to keep records regarding job-related safety and health matters. The main agency created by this act is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which develops and enforces health and safety standards. Also created were the Occupational Safety and

Figure 1

OSHA - Employee Responsibilities

  • Read the OSHA poster at the jobsite.
  • Comply with all applicable OSHA standards.
  • Follow all lawful employer safety and health rules and regulations, and wear or use prescribed protective equipment while working.
  • Report hazardous conditions to the supervisor.
  • Report any job-related injury or illness to the employer, and seek treatment promptly.
  • Exercise rights under the Act in a responsible manner.

Health Review Commission, which hears appeals from employers who wish to contest OSHA rulings, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which conducts health and safety research to suggest new standards and update previous ones.

The most active of these three agencies is OSHA, which has issued thousands of safety and health standards. Areas of basic concern include fire safety, personal protection equipment, electrical safety, basic housekeeping, and machine guards. Each standard specifies such things as permissible exposure limit, monitoring requirements, methods of compliance, personal protective equipment, hygiene facilities, training, and record-keeping.

To comply with these standards, most mid- to large-sized organizations employ safety professionals to keep up with them and ensure that each is being met. These professionals face too many specific issues to mention here, but some of the most important issues they must address appear in Figure 1.

Companies with more than ten employees are subject to routine OSHA inspections. Companies with fewer than ten employees are exempt from such inspections, but can be investigated if a safety-related problem is brought to the attention of OSHA. High-hazard industries, such as manufacturing firms, chemical companies, and construction companies, are subject to inspections regardless of the number of employees.

OSHA conducts inspections based on the following priority classifications, which are listed in order of importance:

  1. Imminent danger. OSHA gives top priority to work-place situations that present an imminent danger of death or serious injury to employees. The company must take immediate corrective action.
  2. Fatality or catastrophe investigations. The second highest priority is given to sites that have experienced an accident that has caused at least one employee to die or three or more to be hospitalized. Employers must report these events within eight hours. The inspection aims to determine the cause of the accident and whether any violation of OSHA standards contributed to it.
  3. Employee complaint investigations. OSHA responds third to employee complaints about hazards or violations. The speed with which OSHA responds depends on the seriousness of the complaint. Employees may request to remain anonymous.
  4. Referrals from other sources. Consideration is given to referrals of hazard information from federal, state and local agencies, individuals, organizations, and the media.
  5. Follow-ups. OSHA sometimes will return to verify that violations have been corrected.
  6. General programmed inspections. OSHA will also inspect an organization if it is a high-hazard industry or has a lost workday injury rate that is above the national norm for that industry.

When an OSHA inspection reveals that an employer has violated one of its standards, it issues a citation. The citation, posted near the site of the violation, lists the nature of the violation, the abatement period (i.e., the time frame within which the company must rectify the problem), and any penalty levied against the employer. Willful violations (i.e., those that an employer intentionally and knowingly commits) carry a penalty of up to $70,000 for each offense. If a death occurs because of a willful violation, the employer may be both fined and imprisoned.

Hazard Communication Standard. In 1984 Congress enacted the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) also commonly referred to as the Employee Right-to-Know Law. This law gives workers the right to know what hazardous substances they are dealing with on the job, and it requires all organizations to (1) develop a system for inventorying hazardous substances, (2) label the containers of these substances, and (3) provide employees with needed information and training to handle and store these substances safely. A substance is considered hazardous if exposure to it can lead to acute or chronic health problems. Federal and state agencies have compiled lists of more than 1,000 substances deemed hazardous under this law. According to a 2004 OSHA report, over thirty million American workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals in their workplaces.

Government fines for right-to-know violations may be as high as $1000 per chemical for first violations and $10,000 per chemical for second violations. Additional penalties for environmental crimes include fines up to $75,000 per day and imprisonment. Despite these penalties, violations are of the HCS are quite common. Over 7,000 citations were issued in 2003, making it the second

most frequently cited OSHA standard. Over $1.3 million in penalties were assessed for these violations. The majority of companies are cited for failing to have:

  • Written hazard communication programs
  • An up-to-date hazardous chemical inventory list
  • Properly labeled chemical containers
  • Material safety data at the work site, in the form of material safety data sheets (MSDS)
  • Training programs for teaching employees about the chemicals they work with

Americans with Disabilities Act. Another law affecting organizational safety and health practices is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An individual is protected by the ADA if he or she is disabled, that is, if the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the individual's major life activities. According to the ADA regulations, temporary, non-chronic impairments that are short in duration and have little or no long-term impact are usually not considered disabilities under the act. For example, broken limbs, sprains, concussions, appendicitis, or influenza are not disabilities. However, if a broken leg did not heal properly and resulted in permanent impairment that significantly restricted walking or other major life activities, it could then be considered a disability.

In 2007, there were 17,734 total charges filed as ADA violations with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). From July 1992 (when the law first took effect) through the end of 2007, employees had filed a total of 253,199 complaints with the EEOC. Employees who became disabled as the result of workplace conditions or injuries filed about half of these charges. Individuals with back impairments have lodged the greatest number of charges. People also frequently claimed emotional, neurological, and extremity impairments.

Penalties for ADA violations may be as high as $50,000 for initial violations and up to $100,000 for each subsequent violation. In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 allows claimants to collect up to $300,000 in punitive damages for willful violations.


Failure to ensure safety in the workplace can be quite expensive for employers. Unintentional injuries alone cost around $150 billion per year for medical and insurance costs, workers' compensation, survivor benefits, lost wages, damaged equipment and materials, production delays, other workers' time losses, selection and training costs for replacement workers, and accident reporting.

Additionally, the legal penalties for violating safety laws can be quite severe. In addition to being issued large fines, employers who violate safety regulations can be held liable for criminal charges. The following two examples of OSHA fines illustrate the types of penalties associated with such violations:

  • In November 2004, OSHA fined a General Motors (GM) Powertrain plant in Massena, New York, for six serious safety violations, including an obstructed exit route, inadequate guarding of moving machine parts, and the failure to assess the need for personal protective equipment for workers. There were additional fines for recordkeeping violations, specifically underreporting injuries and illnesses. The penalty was $160,000.
  • In June 2008, OSHA fined the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center for failing to protect construction workers from asbestos exposure during a 2007 renovation. The medical facility was ordered to pay $110,000 in fines.


Workplace accidents pose serious problems for employees and for a firm's competitive advantage, but employers can prevent most of them. Many preventive strategies work.

Some people just seem to be accident prone. If some people do have inherent tendencies toward accidents, then organizations should be able to lower their accident rates by screening out accident-prone applicants. Research studies have discovered that individuals with certain personality characteristics are more likely than others to be involved in industrial accidents. For instance, one study found that people with higher accident rates tend to be impulsive and rebellious, and they tend to blame outside forces, rather than themselves, for their mishaps. Another study identified the following four high-risk personality characteristics:

  • Risk taking: high risk-takers actually seek out danger rather than trying to minimize or avoid it.
  • Impulsiveness: impulsive individuals fail to think through the consequences of their actions.
  • Rebelliousness: rebellious individuals tend to break established rules, including safety rules.
  • Hostility: hostile individuals tend to lose their tempers easily and thus engage in aggressive acts, such as kicking a jammed machine.

Many organizations now use personality tests to screen out individuals with accident-prone tendencies. For example, some companies use a test (called the Personnel Selection Inventory-Form 3S) to assess applicants'

safety consciousness. One part of the test measures the degree to which individuals perceive a connection between their own behavior and its consequences. As noted earlier, individuals unable to see this connection are at greater risk for accidents.

Employers who provide all new employees with training on safe and proper job procedures experience fewer accidents. Employees should learn how to perform each of their tasks as safely as possible. Training should be very specific, as illustrated in the example that follows. This example covers the procedures to be followed by employees working at a large food manufacturing plant:

  • When picking up pans from the conveyor belt, pick up no more than two pans before you place them on the pan rack.
  • Stack roll pans no higher than the rear rail of the pan rack.
  • When you lift or lower the dough, keep both hands on the dump chain.
  • When you pull the dough trough away from the dough mixer, hold both hands on the front rail and not on the rail sides.

While safety training is essential, employees do not always apply what they have learned. Just as many automobile drivers know it is wrong to exceed legal speed limits but do it anyway, workers may choose to ignore instructions and carry out procedures in their own, unsafe way. One way to mitigate this problem is to implement a safety incentive program. Such programs aim to motivate safe behavior by providing workers with incentives for avoiding accidents. The organization formulates safety goals (usually on a department-wide basis) and rewards employees if these goals are met. For example, a particular department may establish the goal of reducing lost-time accidents by 50 percent over the next three months. If this goal were to be met, all employees within that department would receive an incentive reward, usually in the form of a cash bonus or merchandise.

Safety incentive programs often work quite well. For example, Willamette Industries implemented a program because it was experiencing an average of thirty accidents per year that caused people to miss work. As a result of the program, the company went 450 days without a lost-time accident.

Two problems often arise with safety incentive programs, however. In some cases, workers get so caught up in trying to win incentive rewards that they conceal their injuries and do not report them. When injuries go unreported, injured workers relinquish their rights to workers' compensation and firms remain unaware of safety problems. Second, workers may continue to perform in an unsafe manner (e.g., take risky shortcuts) because they remain unconvinced that such behavior is likely to result in accidents. Unfortunately, these employees are grievously mistaken; unsafe behaviors are a leading cause of accidents. According to one estimate, for every 100,000 unsafe behaviors there are 10,000 near-miss accidents, 1,000 recordable accidents, 100 lost-time accidents, and 1 fatality.


Because employees who know better often continue to engage in accident-causing behavior, many employers have redirected their focus from accident prevention to the prevention of unsafe acts that could lead to an accident. To do so, firms conduct safety audits. A safety committee or supervisors who observe employees on the job and correct unsafe behaviors generally conduct such audits.

Each employee should be monitored according to a planned schedule, generally on a weekly basis, as follows:

Step 1: Observation. Stop in the work area for a few moments and observe worker's activities, looking for both safe and unsafe practices. Use the following guide:

  • Be alert to unsafe practices that the employee corrects immediately upon seeing you enter the area (putting on protective equipment, such as gloves or goggles).
  • Note whether appropriate protective clothing is being worn.
  • Observe how employees use tools.
  • Scrutinize the safety of the work area. For instance, is the floor slippery?
  • Determine whether rules, procedures, and operating instructions are being followed.

Step 2: Employee Discussion. These discussions should help employees recognize and correct their unsafe acts. When engaging in them, adhere to the following advice:

  • If you spot an unsafe act, be non-confrontational. Point out the violation and ask the worker to state what he or she was doing and what safety-related consequences may arise if such behavior continues. Your goal is to help, not blame. Audits should not result in disciplinary actions unless an individual consistently violates safety rules.
  • As you observe your employees, encourage them to discuss any safety concerns they may have and ask them to offer any ideas for safety improvement.
  • Commend any good performance that you observe.

Step 3: Recording and Follow-Up. Findings should be recorded in writing. Pursue any item discussed during the audit that requires follow-up.

Accident investigations determine accident causes so that changes can be made to prevent the future occurrence of similar accidents. Near misses should also be investigated so that problems can be corrected before serious accidents occur. Supervisors always play a key role in accident investigations. For minor accidents, investigation may be limited to the supervisor meeting with the injured worker and filing a report. In large-scale investigations, the supervisor is usually part of a team of experts, which may also include an engineer, maintenance supervisor, upper-level manager, and/or safety professional.

Accident investigations should be performed in the following manner. When an accident occurs, the investigator's first responsibility is to take the following steps to ensure the safety of all employees:

  • Make sure the injured are cared for and receive medical attention, if necessary.
  • Guard against a more dangerous secondary event by removing danger sources and evacuating other personnel from the area if necessary.
  • Restrict access to the area so no one else will be harmed and so the scene will not be disturbed.

You should then begin an investigation to identify both the immediate and underlying causes of the accident. The immediate cause is the event that directly led to the accident, such as a slippery floor, failure to wear safety gear, or failure to follow proper procedures.

Immediate causes, while easily found, are not always very helpful in suggesting how future incidents of this nature can be avoided. To accomplish this aim, the investigator must discover the underlying cause of the accident. For example, suppose a worker slips and falls on spilled oil. The oil on the floor is the immediate cause of the accident, but you need to know why it was not cleaned up and why a machine was leaking oil in the first place. Poor training, lack of rule enforcement, low safety awareness, poor maintenance, or crowded work areas commonly underlie accidents.

The investigator should ensure the accident scene is kept intact until the investigation is finished, as this will be the only chance to view the scene exactly as it was at the time of the accident. If a camera is available, photographs of the scene should be taken. Nothing related to the incident should be destroyed or discarded. The investigator should inspect the location (e.g., check for chemicals, broken pieces of machinery) and interview injured or affected workers, eyewitnesses, and anyone else who may be familiar with the accident area. Interviews should be conducted immediately, while the incident is still fresh in everyone's mind. Individuals should give their own account of the incident; by letting them tell their stories without interruption, the investigator can determine if the various responses corroborate one another. Continue asking why until the underlying causes surface. Once the causes are identified, the investigator should recommend any changes indicated by the findings.

Safety committees often oversee organizations' safety functions. Consisting of both management and non-management personnel, committees perform the following tasks:

  1. Assist with inspections and accident investigations.
  2. Conduct safety meetings.
  3. Answer workers' questions about safety programs.
  4. Bring workers' safety concerns to management's attention.
  5. Help develop safety incentive programs.
  6. Develop ideas to improve workplace safety.
  7. Prepare evacuation plans.
  8. Prepare procedures for disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. and contingency plans following the disaster.

Safety in the workplace works most effectively with a combination of employer attentiveness and employee responsibility. Costs, both financial and physical, can be decreased and injuries reduced with proper training, employer involvement and company-wide adherence to OSHA rules and guidelines. Ensuring safety is important not only for each individual company and worksite, but for industries and national concerns as well.

SEE ALSO Employment Law and Compliance


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Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available from:

Juergens, J. Safety First. Occupational Health & Safety 73, no. 6 (2004): 9496.

Kleiman, L.S. Human Resource Management: A Tool for Competitive Advantage. 4th ed. Cincinnati: South-Western College Publishing, 2006.

Nash, J.L. OSHA Fines General Motors Corp. $160,000 for Recordkeeping, Safety Violations. Occupational Hazards 66, no. 11 (2004): 8.

Scheer, Mark. Niagara Falls: OSHA fines Memorial Medical Center. Niagara Gazette, 16 June 2008. Available from:

Stewart, R. The Challenge of Creating a Culture of Safety. Canadian HR Reporter 18, no. 6 (2005): 11.

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