Why Occupational Health and Safety is the Senior Management’s Job

occupational health and safety policy


Few people like to deal with occupational health and safety (OHS) unless they absolutely have to. After all, the main point of occupational health and safety management systems (OH&SMS) is to prevent and mitigate, not to actively cause something to happen. As long as these systems work as intended, their benefits can be quite difficult to spot. This can make the task of convincing your company’s decision-makers to invest into an OH&SMS quite an ordeal.

Surprisingly enough, it’s not always the senior management who has trouble seeing past the initial effort of investing into an OH&SMS. After all, every company is legally obligated to meet at least basic standards of health and safety and most organisations stop there. Once you try to go beyond the absolute minimum, you hit an almost impenetrable wall of bureaucracy and apathy on the part of your H&S officers.

This is regrettable, considering that strong safety cultures bear benefits that go way beyond ensuring the minimal well-being of employees.

OH&SMS implementation has to begin with a strong argument.

You’ve probably heard the following statements quite a few times. If you’re a member of senior management, there’s a good chance you’ve used a similar excuse at least once.

  • “We have other things to worry about than implementing a health and safety management system.”
  • “Spending money on OH&SMS is unnecessary, as we already follow the H&S laws.”
  • “Why should we spend money on improving H&S?”

I like to think that improving health and safety at companies is like campaigning against climate change. Most of the time, nothing outside the ordinary can be seen by the naked eye. Summers are still hot, winters are clad in snow, workers are able to do their jobs just fine. Even when a catastrophe occurs, most people see it as a random accident, not a symptom of deeper structural problems. Consequently, no action is taken in order to prevent these incidents from happening. But then the catastrophe reoccurs because its causes were never really understood in the first place.

It’s no wonder that any effort to disrupt this vicious circle must begin with developing a strong argument. In other words, if you want to improve occupational health and safety in your company, you need to understand all the benefits such improvement brings. Only then you can make a convincing case for investing into OH&SMS.

It’s not up to H&S officers to implement OH&SMS.

What you’re about to read will probably sound a bit counterintuitive but — it’s not up the company’s H&S officers to implement an H&S policy. Sure, they’ll take care of the technicalities but at the end of the day, it’s an important business decision. Such decisions can only be made by senior management.

When you take a look at the most cited benefits of investing into an occupational health and safety policy, most of them go far beyond simply protecting your employees. According to the EU-OSHA, occupational health and safety:

  • Helps demonstrate that your business is socially responsible.
  • Protects and enhances brand image and brand value.
  • Helps maximise the productivity of workers.
  • Enhances employees’ commitment to the business.
  • Builds a more competent, healthier workforce.
  • Reduces business costs and disruption.
  • Enables enterprises to meet customers’ OSH expectations.
  • Encourages the workforce to stay longer in active life.
  • Maintains and promotes investor confidence.
  • Develops positive stakeholder engagement.

This list suggests that to leave all things OHS-related in the hands of your H&S officers is to miss out on a wealth of opportunity. Sure, they’ll make sure that you comply with all the legal standards. However, if you want to reap the benefits outlined above, OH&SMS will have to work hand in hand with the overarching business strategy. If you’re in a managerial position, remember that your task is to lead and set standards for others to follow. Don’t hesitate to take leadership in H&S too.

How I Almost Died While Backpacking in Bolivia and Found Out Why Institutions Like OSHA Really Exist

feeling safe vs being safe


Have you ever heard about the Darwin Awards? Every year, they award people who died in the dumbest ways you can imagine. At the same time they are a testimony to the fact that being safe and feeling safe are two quite unrelated things. I remember the day when I genuinely thought I was about to become a laureate of this prestigious award.

During that time, we did many things others would consider dangerous. We lived in rainforest for a while, went fishing on a raft we had built ourselves, and hitchhiked all across Patagonia. Yet, the only time I feared for my life was when we finally came to La Paz, Bolivia.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Arrival at La Paz

It was one scary cab ride. Compared to other things we did, this should have been a uneventful transfer to hotel. And objectively, it really was. There was absolutely no risk to our lives or well-being.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t have talked to that old woman on the bus. In less than an hour, she told us everything about fake taxi drivers in La Paz. How they lure you into their car with a confidence trick, rob you, and then leave you in the outskirts of the city at night.

After a quick google search, the danger seemed very real to us. Even more so once the bus finally arrived at the terminal and no one was leaving. They were all waiting for the sunrise. “It must really be too dangerous outside even for the locals,” we thought. What must they be doing to poor tourists like ourselves? We didn’t dare to move either.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: The Deaf Taxi Driver

At the break of dawn, we finally mustered enough courage and began to look for a safe cab. We knew that real taxis had to have a phone number printed on them, glowing sign on the roof, and a voice radio inside.

We rejected several of the taxi drivers who swarmed us at the entrance. Instead, we took a cab that was parked next to a police officer. By the way, did you know that La Paz is also famous for its fake policemen? Well, we did but hoped for the best.

The cab driver made us write down the address of our hotel for him, which was weird but I thought it was due to our accent. Then I noticed he didn’t have a radio inside. Only fake taxis don’t have a radio! But it was too late for thinking about that, the car had already begun to move.

Crutching my phone in hand, I was following our location on Google Maps. So far so good. Then suddenly, the car turned into a narrow dark alley, my battery died and I started screaming “No, no, no, no, señor!”

Do you remember how the driver wanted me to write down the address of our hotel? Well, he was almost completely deaf, which is why he paid no attention to my screams. Moreover, a deaf taxi driver has no use for a radio.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: My Hysterical Outburst

None of this occurred to me at that moment. I was too busy being petrified by a bin lorry that just blocked the street.

Do you know those scenes from Hollywood movies? You know, the ones where a truck blocks a street while a group of gangsters pulls passengers out of their car. Well, that’s exactly what was going through my head at that very moment. I was certain we were about to get abducted, robbed, raped, and killed off in the end.

Fortunately, this story is somewhat anti-climactic. The taxi driver was a lovely guy who took us exactly where we wanted to. Nothing bad happened to us and La Paz is probably much safer than we were led to believe.

Still, I felt the danger was very real. For some time, I believed it was simply because I’m a wuss. But what if it had little to do with me being a chicken? What if my hysterical reaction can tell us something essential about how humans experience danger?

being safe vs feeling safe

Being save vs. Feeling Safe: Security Is a Trade-Off

Human beings, including me, seem to be hopelessly bad at identifying dangerous situations. Just skim through the Darwin Awards Facebook page.

Immediately, you’ll find a story of a man who got trampled to death by an angry elephant while trying to make a selfie with him. Or story of a college graduate who fell into a spring of boiling acidic water as he was reaching down to check if the water temperature.

Most of these deaths have a lot do with the fact that humans are terrible at making the right security trade-offs. And when you think about it, security is always a trade-off. It comes at a price of convenience, money, time, liberties, and so on.

For instance, you trade the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket for some additional home security. Similarly, you trade the liberty of making up-close selfies with animals against the security from being trampled to death by an elephant. But you can also do the opposite and trade the security of staying at home against the liberty of hitchhiking across South america.

In my case, it worked out. I made the right security trade-offs. On the other hand, people who received the Darwin Award made a terrible trade-off and now they’re…well, dead.

being safe vs feeling safe

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Cognitive Biases

It’s surprisingly difficult to make correct security trade-offs consistently. Humans are, above all, prone to all kinds of cognitive biases. Selecting only few among many:

  • Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take rather than a risk imposed on them.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over.
  • Most people are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks they are less aware of.

You can probably already trace these biases across my story.

  • While backpacking, I was never afraid to take risks inherently present in nature. The first time I really feared for my life was when I encountered a human-made danger.
  • I felt much better when I was able to reject the taxi drivers who approached me first. Instead, I picked one who allowed me to choose freely.
  • I started panicking once I was completely at mercy of our driver. The moment my phone died, I lost even the last bit of control over the situation.
  • Everything would have probably been fine if the old lady on the bus didn’t tell us all the scary stories. I was overly aware of the risk.

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe: Why Does OSHA Exist?

Human brain is a fascinating organ, but an absolute mess. Since assessing and reacting to risk is one of the most important things a living creature has to deal with, there’a very primitive part of the brain that deals just with that. However, this primitive part of the brain only works consistently well when faced with the most immediate and obvious threats.

We know the world is more complicated than that. Some scary things are not as dangerous as they seem, others are not scary at all but will kill you just as surely. Moreover, often it can be useful to stay in a dangerous situation and a work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation.

At the core of the problem lies the facts that we humans have two ways of reacting to risk. First, a primitive system which reacts intuitively. Second, we have the ability of analytical reasoning. However, these two operate in parallel and it’s hard for reason to counter our instincts.

Once you see it this way, even insanely boring jobs like “health and safety inspector” suddenly seem interesting! They’re are fighting an almost existential battle against human nature itself!

If you’re wondering about those cute animated gifs in the article, they come from a song called “Dumb Ways to Die”. You can listen to it here

A Lesson to Be Learned from the EU Accidents at Work Statistics

accidents at work

We took the European statistics on accidents at work and correlated it with the USA’s list of the most cited safety and health violations. What does the result mean for your business?

Every year, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) releases a list of the 10 most frequently cited safety and health violations. According to Thomas Galassi, “One remarkable thing about the list is that it rarely changes.” Year after year, health and safety inspectors record a similar set of violations in the workplace.

“Year after year, health and safety inspectors record a similar set of violations in the workplace.”

The EU-OSHA doesn’t publish a list of most frequent safety at work violations. Still, the US study can be also relevant to European workplaces. In spite of many differences, the most dangerous work environments are identical both to the EU and the USA: construction, transportation, and agriculture. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics even released a study which compared the two regions in terms of work accidents. Although BLS officials cautioned against reading too much into the data, they showed that a comparison was possible.

We can’t stress this enough — most of the safety incidents that result from these hazards are preventable. This highlights the need for strong safety leadership in setting high safety standards and enforcing them constantly.

Let’s divide the OSHA’s list into three parts, depending on what type of accidents they seek to prevent and see what it indicates in combination with the European accidents at work statistics.

Non-fatal Accidents at Work
Non-fatal accidents according to activity deviation (%)

A. Slipping, tripping, and falling

OSHA most cited violations:

  • Fall protection
  • Scaffolds
  • Ladders

It’s no coincidence that falls are among the leading causes of worker deaths. In 2014, almost 19 percent of all non-fatal injuries and 14 percent of fatal injuries in the EU were caused by falls. These were falls from great heights, falls on slippery floors, or trips over something lying on the floor. We know how to prevent all of these. Yet they still remain one of the most common causes of workplace injuries.

B. Loss of control of machine

OSHA most cited violations: 

  • Lockout/Tagout
  • Powered industrial trucks
  • Machine guarding

In 2014, almost 21 percent of non-fatal and 30 percent of fatal accidents happened as a consequence of sudden loss of control of a machine. We see far too many workers being killed or injured when machinery suddenly starts up while being repaired, or hands and fingers are exposed to moving parts. We shouldn’t forget to add traffic rules violations to the list since the highest number of workers in transportation dies in road accidents every year. It’s no coincidence that three out of ten precautions on the OSHA’s list aim to mitigate these types of accidents.

C. Goods manipulation

OSHA most cited violations:

  • None

The second most common type of work accident is two-fold. First, it relates to pulling, lifting, pushing, holding, carrying, and throwing activities at work. More than 18 percent of non-fatal injuries and only 2 percent of fatal injuries happen due to overexertion. Second, it relates to breakage, bursting, splitting, spilling, fall, or collapse of a material agent. Almost 7 percent of non-fatal injuries and 12 percent of fatal injuries occur in this way. This means that about 25 percent of non-fatal injuries and 14 percent of fatal injuries happen while manipulating goods.

Fatal Accidents at Work Chart
Fatal accidents according to activity or deviation (%)

Foster a culture of safety

Still, we were unable to connect the third type of accidents to any of the OSHA’s list of safety violations. On the first sight, this would point towards the shortcomings of our project. After all, we are attempting to correlate an American statistic with European data. Yet, the data shows that the situations on both sides of the Atlantic are remarkably similar.

One shouldn’t read too much into the data, but let’s give it a shot anyway. The implication points to a significant blind spot in health and safety regulations.

The main point of interest here is overexertion. It is the most frequent and most expensive of all work injuries. Yet, it is impossible to fight overexertion with a simple safety measure — no safeguard is going to be enough. Instead, we have tackle overexertion by fostering cultures of safety within our companies. Such company cultures reduce costs, raise productivity, and improve morale. Problems such as overexertion reveal the necessity to go beyond minimal requirements and simple health and safety rules. It points towards the necessity of m ore robust health and safety education.