I’ve Been Given “Safety”… So, Now What Do I Do?

“Oh my, what did I do to myself? I seemed a little interested in “Safety,” and now I’ve been appointed to be my company’s safety person! But I don’t really know a thing about safety!”

You might be surprised how often I hear that. Really. While there are some organizations that, due to company size, type of industry and regulatory experience (and sometimes, company culture) have long-established “safety” (or “health, safety and environment” (HSE)) staffs, there are many that do not. Sometimes organizations have never had a dedicated “safety” person or think they have done “just fine” by making HSE an “additional duty” of existing staff. (Hello, Human Resources, Facilities and Quality staffs?)

If this speaks to you, then – welcome. It’s a wonderful thing that you (or someone in your company) had some inspiration to address its HSE programs, maybe a bit more formally. Maybe this was because of workers’ compensation costs or a bad injury. Maybe it was because the company needs to prove for its customers, that it has certain programs in place. Or something else.

The good news is that regardless, with the proper company support and some effort on your part – you can make a significant difference for your company. You don’t have to be an expert in “everything.” There are some simple things that can get you moving in the right direction and focusing on some fundamentals can help you.

However, and on the other hand, you also need to know that having effective “safety” programs is not just a matter of telling people to “be safe today.” There is a lot more to it, as persons who take on safety roles, with or without safety backgrounds, usually find out.

The Lay of the Land

I am not an attorney and so do not take this as legal advice, but – when you take on safety duties on behalf of an employer, as part of an occupational health and safety program, there are levels of responsibility that go with that. This can vary by country. Speaking purely of safety, in some countries, safety staffs and persons acting in supervisory capacities can have personal liabilities. In the US, state laws build in the principle of “exclusive remedy.” This basically means that employers provide injury benefits to injured workers, regardless of fault. Workers however, lose their ability to sue their employer. Companies in those cases don’t have unlimited liability for occupational injuries but in exchange for that, there can essentially be liberal application of workers’ compensation benefits. (There can be exceptions to this, such as for cases involving intentional harm, concealment, or other reasons.) This does not however mean that 3rd parties cannot sue companies, such as the families of fatally injured workers, or non-employees. And of course, OSHA can still cite employers for violations of OSHA regulations. (Sometimes, everything can seem to be going “great” until that serious injury or fatality….)

The violation of environmental laws tends to have much higher potential for personal liability and jailtime. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can prosecute criminally and the Department of Justice has an Environmental Crimes Section. For a discussion pertaining to your potential liabilities, consult your company’s legal counsel or your attorney.

In any event, if your company is regulated by OSHA, the supervisors and managers in your company “do” have certain obligations. There are higher expectations of supervisors and managers than of general employees, but then again, the law DOES describe the rights and responsibilities of employees.

Ignorance on the part of your company, is not an excuse for not otherwise providing a safe and healthful workplace. Especially if push ever comes to shove, your company will want to show that it is compliant with applicable laws and regulations, has competent persons performing necessary actions to provide a safe workplace, and that it takes reasonable and prudent actions in its approaches to safety.

Understanding basic requirements or “safety 101” issues is part of that and will be important to you. This includes knowing which organizations regulate your business (including OSHA and EPA or State-equivalents as well as others) and becoming aware of critical compliance issues. You need to know what your basic “blocking and tackling” issues are. Focusing on safety and health for the moment, these types of items would include basic hazard identification and control, first aid and emergency medical care, emergency action plans, fire protection, basic injury and illness reporting and investigation, regulatory reporting of injuries, claims management, processes for ensuring proper training (some topics are mandatory), processes to determine and ensure workers are qualified to perform certain work (e.g. electrical), and written programs that apply across a number of industries. (For example, emergency action plans, energy control (lock/tag/try), hazard communication, and others.) While some regulations will apply to a broad range of types of employers, others apply only if conducting certain types of work. If your company uses machines and equipment with hazardous motion or components, you will want to learn machine guarding requirements, for example.

Going beyond that, to do the best job, you will also need to know some related and/or extended concepts. For example, what are reasonable company policies and HSE goals? What are “leading” and “lagging” safety indicators? How does what “you” do, fit into your organization’s workers’ compensation programs and disability insurance programs? How can or should what “you” do, integrate with new projects, processes and equipment that other departments might be planning? What organizations exist in your industry that may have defined “best practices” for the type of business you are in?

You will want to start a process to answer those questions.

What Causes Injuries? What Prevents Them? Your Answers Are Critical

You will want to be able to move beyond just taking notes on injuries that have already happened and instead, proactively avoid having those “bad” things from happening to begin with. (Or are you happy to serve just as the local claims administrator for the insurance company?)

What is YOUR take on the age-old topic of “why accidents (incidents) happen?” This is a critical question, and your personal answer to this question will affect how you develop and implement your programs. Is it the case that most accidents are from dumb mistakes and a failure to be careful, and that people should be fired if they have one, regardless of the culture, management leadership, training and work environment? Is it just the opposite of that — always “management’s fault”, regardless of employee actions? Or do causes tend to include a blend of factors? There are many books and articles written about these questions; you should take some initiative if you haven’t already, to become informed about causes and prevention.

“Warning! Warning! Warning!”

There is the risk that some of the well-intentioned folks who’ve asked you to take on your new role, may have some misconceptions about what an effective safety program should include, or otherwise firmly believe in ideas and approaches to safety that are not acceptable to OSHA or have otherwise been discredited. For example, one must be careful when implementing safety incentive programs, so that the program does not discourage injury reporting. For another example, some might want you to model your accident prevention programs based solely on the old triangle theory (Heinrich theory) of injury causes and relationships. Organizations that use that approach and that treat all events as equal in terms of serious injuries and fatality (SIF) potential, are likely to miss important risk reduction opportunities. This is because in at least most cases, the types of things that cause SIFs, are not the same things that cause other less severe types of injuries. By the way, the old Heinrich model also had explicit consideration for mental deficiency as one potential cause of injuries. I doubt that you’ll want to be telling your injured employees that they are mentally deficient.

Where to Begin?

If you don’t have a safety background, it would be good to learn some basic concepts. Work with your company to identify resources that are already available to you. Are there corporate resources and possibly a corporate web page with links and tools?

An OSHA 30-hour regulatory overview class can be helpful to understand a broad range of requirements, although it will also probably cover some requirements that have nothing to do with your type of business. With a good trainer, it will be a good start, but do realize that will “just” be a start. Your company should not be under the illusion that this is all you will ever need.

There are other ways to gather information about basic hazards and requirements. Some states have compliance assistance/consultation programs that provide mini-courses on things like “Top 25 OSHA Violations” and high impact requirements. The Federal OSHA web page has some great resources, to include with a small employer orientation. There is even an interactive tutorial on hazard identification. Then, there are other decent primers that you can find on line with a little bit of research. You can also find various kinds of task-specific hazard checklists online, in many cases, for free.

Training might be available through the insurance company that provides your company’s workers’ compensation coverage. If so, you can often work with your insurance company and ask them to provide and/or tailor a class for you and other employees. Be selective however, because usually there is only “so much” that can be provided within a policy year.

Also, I would find a book or two on basic safety management. As you identify your gaps, you can obtain more specialized texts and materials if you need them.

You may want to tie in with one or more associations or organizations dedicated to occupational safety and health. Depending upon your perspective, this could include (for example) the National Safety Council (NSC), the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), or the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association (for mining). There are also industry-specific organizations that can help address industry-specific safety issues. For example, the American Foundry Society (AFS) has a committee dedicated to foundry related health and safety.

You can also subscribe to online safety publications. These organizations discuss current safety issues and also periodically provide related webinars. Some are free, but for those with a fee, it’s usually pretty minimal. OHS Magazine is one option for this (https://ohsonline.com).

At some point, attendance at regional or national safety conferences can be helpful. These normally provide you with access to both excellent presentations on topics that you choose, and exhibits and displays of safety related gear, equipment, supplies and software that may be of interest to you. Consider checking out the Michigan Safety Conference, the Indiana Safety and Health Conference & Expo, the Tennessee Safety & Health Conference, and other regional events. National events include (but certainly are not limited to) the National Safety Congress & Expo, the American Society of Safety Engineers’s Professional Development Conference & Exposition, and the American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Exposition. There are numerous specialty conferences beyond those, such as for ergonomics.

There are also several documents out there that are intended to describe elements of effective safety management systems. You might want to look at these to gather ideas for what to be sure to include in your own system or to set a company trajectory. For example, there is the well-established ANSI/ASSE Z10 Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems standard, recently reaffirmed and with some fantastic additions planned. The revised standard should be released by the end of 2018. There is also the newly approved international standard, ISO 45001: Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

Once you understand basic requirements and good practices, you can and should assess how your company stacks up.

To do this, you should (if you haven’t already) conduct a review of the last few years of your company’s injury and illness records and note the types of injuries/illnesses that have occurred and the corresponding causes. Also ask your company for copies of prior insurance and risk assessment reports and prior regulatory citations, and/or conduct other assessments against criteria that you establish. Perhaps your company has conducted internal walk-throughs or program evaluations. Take a look at those.

Evaluate your safety committee, if there is one. Is there a scope and does it have clear goals? With proper scope and employee involvement, some great things can come out of having one. But this is with willing employee involvement, meaningful participation, and appropriate training. Safety committee members may be willing and able to assist with special projects. If you don’t have a safety committee (and presuming that one is not required by regulation or contract), then evaluate whether or not one would be helpful.

It can make sense to ask for a third-party assessment or assistance periodically. You don’t know what you don’t know. An extra set of eyes can help. Injuries and fatalities sometimes occur because workers can basically become complacent or inattentive to risks they are used to taking, or because people don’t fundamentally recognize risk potential. Also, some types of assessments are best conducted by 3rd parties unless you have staff fully trained and competent for the type of assessment needed, such as for personal air sampling to assess compliance with regulatory exposure limits.

Back at the Ranch

Hopefully you plan to take your new assignment seriously and manage it as you would for any other part of the business. For that matter, your company’s HSE programs should be integrated into the business, for greatest buy-in and success. Develop a coordinated game plan and follow it. Plan to develop your skills and knowledge. Ask for help when you need it. Develop measures of success, communicate, and seek to improve over time. You don’t need to be intimidated, and you can succeed in your new role with the proper mindset and deliberate action. Good luck.


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