Which “Hierarchy” Really Matters? Where Does Safety Really Fit?

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According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety is second only to our individual physiological needs; such as air, food, and water. OSHA often references a Hierarchy of Controls when discussing the elimination of hazards in the workplace. (I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone with OSHA discuss it, but I’m going to assume that they won’t take too much exception with Maslow listing safety after our individual need for oxygen…) I’ve also heard Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy, use the phrase “Safety THIRD.” He makes the point that companies often tout the Safety First mantra but rarely back it up in the way they handle their day to day operations. His point is that having safety as an organization’s true third priority would likely still be significantly better than where it falls now.
But where does the responsibility for using safe behavior truly fall? Oh sure, OSHA’s general duty clause says it’s the company’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment. I’m not arguing that at all. Let’s be honest with ourselves on this one though, when does OSHA really have an impact on what actually happens? Unfortunately, it’s fairly rare. Typically, their impact is limited to when they show up for some sort of inspection, whether is a routine visit or due to a complaint, or when they are on a job site for an incident investigation. Neither are frequent, and I would argue that the incident investigation is too late to make a difference for at least one person… That said, I question how much their looming expectations for providing a safe workplace really impacts the day to day decision making at most organizations.
In years of behavior based safety, the goal was always to get the employee focused on choosing behaviors according to the things that mattered most to them; and that often included their family, friends, and hobbies. When I do orientation today, I tell each new employee that complying with an OSHA regulation is the FOURTH thing I want them to consider when it comes to their safety. The first thing I want them to pay attention to in everything they do is making sure they go home safely at the end of each shift! I emphasize that I never want to have to make a call to, or visit with, their family explaining that they aren’t coming home because of an on-the-job incident. The other reason I stress this as first priority is that they’re the only person I can ever guarantee to be involved their work ALL THE TIME… Second, I ask that they make sure they’re meeting our customer’s expectation for safe work. I have two simple reasons for this as well: the customer is the one that pays us AND they’re going to have a lot of visibility of the work being done. Third, I need them to be sure to follow our company guidelines related to safe work. This is down the list a bit since I know that our management team will never be looking over every shoulder every day. If someone is only complying with safety because they’re afraid of what I may do if I catch them, there will be more times than not where I won’t be there to catch them! And finally, I explain that we have a responsibility to comply with OSHA’s rules and regulations. I certainly don’t save this for last to minimize OSHA’s importance. Quite honestly, I believe that by doing everything in our power to take care of the first three things, we should also be doing a pretty good job of OSHA compliance. And again, if I position OSHA as some sort of threat, they have to be visible on a routine basis before it really impacts someone’s behavior…
All said, if we talk about what truly matters to our team members we have a much better chance at achieving the results we’re all after!
Hope this helps,
Wes Dove, SHRM-CP/CHBC
Safety & Human Resource Manager, Blauch Brothers, Inc.
wdove@blauchbrothers.com