Hazard Recognition and Control: Improving Safety’s Bottom Line

The power generation industry is a highly competitive one in which players continue to change and the race for profits is a tough one with the challenge of heavy environmental regulations. One of the most overlooked areas for cost savings is safety. Notwithstanding the moral and legal responsibilities that power plant management has for creating a workplace where everyone can work without injury, reducing and eliminating workplace injuries and illnesses is good for business.

The Cost of U.S. Occupational Injuries

According to the 2010 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, the direct cost of the most disabling workplace injuries in 2008 was $53.4 billion in U.S. workers’ compensation costs, or over $1 billion per week. The top causes of the most disabling injuries are overexertion, falls on the same level, and bodily reaction (such as bending). Each of these injuries is a common occurrence at power plants. A root cause of these and other injuries is often the failure to recognize and control a hazard. Some hazards, such as combustible dust, are the top concerns of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and power generation management; other hazards may not get the same level of attention. Nevertheless, OSHA holds plant managers responsible for controlling all recognized hazards. Why is this important to the bottom line?

The National Safety Council estimated the cost of each workplace death at $1.3 million, a disabling injury at $53,000, and a medically consulted (OSHA recordable) injury at $36,000. These costs include wage and productivity loss, medical expenses, and administrative costs. In 2009, the power generation industry experienced four fatalities, more than 2,300 total recordable injury/illness cases, and 1,200 days away from work, restricted duty, or work transfers related to injury or illness. It’s easy to see that safety affects the bottom line.

Promoting Hazard Recognition in the Workplace

Although employees may not have the same level of concern for the bottom line of their companies as managers do, they are concerned about their own safety and the impact of injuries on their personal finances. The foundation to improving everyone’s bottom line through injury reduction is hazard recognition and control.

In the U.S. electric utility industry, the most significant thing that managers can do is to help employees recognize and control the hazards around them. Power plant operations are often prescriptive, involving prodigious processes and programs, yet anecdotally, we find that many incident investigations include a statement that the employee did not recognize or control the hazard(s). A review of safety meeting minutes and hazard reports often demonstrates that, when employees recognize and report hazards, they often do not realize their responsibility for controlling and mitigating their exposure.

The question is then, how do you get employees at your plant to recognize and control the hazards to which they are exposed? The answer consists of four parts:

  • As managers, commit to increasing your own awareness of the hazards that employees face in the normal course of their work. If you “came up through the ranks” in a power plant, you may be well-aware of many of the hazards; however, technology, design practices, and situations may have changed. Take advantage of learning from your industry’s standards and communities of practice, such as the PRB Coal Users’ Group and the Edison Electric Institute’s Health and Safety Committee. Additionally, listen to employees’ comments and concerns, and take a walk around the plant with a fresh perspective.
  • Ensure that employees are trained about the behavioral aspects of hazard recognition and control. Our experience shows that many power plants conduct only mandatory, or compliance-based, safety training. Going beyond this level and helping employees understand what their personal obstacles are in seeing the hazards that can hurt or kill them is essential to creating a workforce that can take responsibility for reducing and eliminating injuries.
  • Conduct a formal hazard assessment that gives every employee the opportunity to identify the hazards they frequently face as part of their daily work. By gaining a deeper understanding of these hazards, plant leaders can take steps to appropriately protect, train, and communicate with employees so they can work without injury.
  • Recognize that not every employee has the same level of competency, behavioral willingness, and/or attitude toward safe conduct of work. All employees must be deemed qualified to do their work by their supervisors; some employees may need additional training.

Our philosophy is that safety is everyone’s responsibility and that zero injuries is the only acceptable target in the workplace. To that end, take time to understand your role as a safety leader in your organization. Although OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards (OSHA Act 1974, General Duty Clause), go beyond that requirement to demonstrate your personal commitment, engage employees, analyze the worksite, and train workers to recognize and control the hazards that can harm them and others. Make the objective “nobody gets hurt” your personal goal.

Deb Potter, PhD (deb@potterandassociates.com) is a certified management consultant who specializes in safety management for electric utilities and is the author of Zero! Responsible Safety Management by Design. Carl Potter is a board-certified safety professional.