This week I am teaching a 40-Hour HAZWOPER course. It’s been quite some time since I’ve done so, and I must admit, it’s a long week.
As usual, I’m enjoying the group in class — a very small group, just four, but with vastly different experience. One construction employee with 28 years working for the same General Contractor, and at the other end of the spectrum, a 20 year old with exactly three months of experience.
The most veteran employee was quiet during the first day or so of training. Almost withdrawn. He didn’t make much eye contact. And I consider myself able to draw folks out.
On the second day, he almost painfully spoke up. We were talking about machine guards. He expressed the frustration of the near-impossibility of working with some tools or equipment with the guards in place. He indicated that his own management had a simple solution. You operate the equipment with the guard or risk getting fired.
Without throwing his management under the bus, I told him that my approach was a little different when I’ve encountered an employee who was operating equipment with a guard removed.
I asked them why.
My personal philosophy is that no one arrives at work on a given day, looks contemplatively at their hands and concludes that ten fingers seems excessive, and that today is the day to risk losing one or two.
Therefore I also conclude that there must be some motivating factor that causes an employee to remove a guard from a piece of equipment. Is it because they cannot do the task with the guard in place? Is it because they cannot assess the quality of the work when it’s affixed? Is it because there’s a safe work practice that involves the use of a tool when the guard cannot be utilized?
It is not uncommon that the guard design is poor. It is also not unusual that the work technique the employee is using is not ideal and that there’s a different way to use the equipment with the guard utilized as designed by the manufacturer.
Wagging a finger at an employee to replace the guard or threatening their job without resolving the reason the employee removed it does not resolve the issue. It is short-sighted. It simply means the employee will look over both shoulders before removing it the next time, and the next, and the next, often with eventually disastrous results.
“I told him not to remove that guard!”
The stereotype of safety professionals as “cops” is one we all need to work diligently to overcome.
Seeking first to understand an employee’s conundrum and then to work with employees to problem-solve is one of the most important steps in doing so.
I often warn clients or their employees that I can be a bit of an Askhole.
When they bring me in to consult on a safety or compliance issue, I ask a lot of questions. My mission is to understand their dilemma, their challenges, their hazards, and their ideas for potential solutions. Sure, I probably have some solutions of my own, but without being sure I have all of the information, a clear picture of all of the factors involved, it might be the wrong fix.
Another example that came up in this week’s course was with regard to working at heights …
I have had a client or two that insisted that, as a matter of policy, contractors working from a scissors lift carry a harness and six foot lanyard (with deceleration device) in the lift with them as they go up to perform work.
So that they can tie off somewhere should they be unable to conduct their work with their feet flat on the floor of the scissors lift platform.
This sets off alarm bells and red lights in my brain.
Anyone with a comprehensive understanding of personal fall arrest knows that selecting the components of a system, particularly the anchor, is a decision worthy of contemplation, a bit of math and a solid understanding of the physics of a fall and the equipment available to us.
The policy of having a harness/lanyard readily available almost encourages an employee to connect their lanyard to any item in their reach should they need to climb up or out of that scissors lift. Having been involved in incidents where employees, left to their own devices, attached to the scissors lift top rail or a stretch of conduit above them, I think this is a horrible idea.
My solution is a bit different.
I instruct employees that if they go up in a scissors lift and find they cannot complete their work with their feet flat on the floor, they are to bring the scissors lift down, hunt me down, and that, together, the two of us will come up with the safest, most compliant solution to their dilemma. I assure them we have time, we always have time, to get that decision right.
It’s not that I don’t have an iron fist. I do. I have told employees that if I see them working from a scissors lift while standing on the mid rail, I will dismiss them on the spot, simply because that act is so dangerous that they could die. Standing in that position with their center of gravity well above the top rail, they are in a precarious position to go tumbling over and fall to their death. Yep, their life is important enough to me that I’m willing to walk them out the door than give them a second chance to die on my watch.
But they have an opportunity to get it right, to make me a part of their team, to put our heads together to determine the safest possible solution. I’d rather be a part of their decision-making than picking up the pieces following a bad choice they made on their own.
All they have to do is seek me out to help them make the best possible safety decision, weighing all the risk factors.
It’s not that hard a sell. They want to live. They want to keep their job. They want to succeed at what they do. And at their core, just like you, just like me, they want to be heard and understood.
If they view you as someone offering a potential solution, or several potential solutions, they bring that lift down and seek you out. It gives you an opportunity to hear about their dilemma, to truly hear them, take a look at the situation, solicit their ideas, offer up your own, gain consensus on the best, and send them back up with a risk-based solution and the notion that “that safety person isn’t so bad.”
Collaborating on resolving a problem, listening to one another, now we’ve established some trust. Win/win.
Welcome to the sales team!