Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Audit of Understanding

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

An Audit of Understanding

Article excerpt

It was one of the most frightening sounds I had ever heard -- a loud, desperate gasping that echoed through the hallway. We ran out of the office we were in, down the hall, toward the noise. Other employees were rushing to the same spot. There, we found a secretary, now barely able to make a sound, with her arms outstretched for help. A coworker was moving behind her, ready to apply the Heimlich maneuver. After a few attempts, the food she was choking on was dislodged.

During and even after the incident, there was confusion in the hallway. Who should be contacted? Who else was certified in first aid? Where were they located? Should someone call "911"? It was easy to see that while some people knew exactly how to react in this emergency, many more did not.

As emergencies go, this was a small one, but it served to reinforce some basic truths about safety in the workplace. One is that small events can have major consequences. A bite of food, a match struck, a sling not checked -- and a routine event blossoms into a life or death situation. Does it pay to take care of the near misses, the out of the ordinary, the seemingly inconsequential? You bet. They may be the tip of a deadly iceberg.

A second is that safe workplaces are made, not born. Preparation and planning, not good luck and trust, are needed to create a safe environment. The payoff for such planning is particularly apparent in an emergency, where there is no time for rehearsal or regret.

A third is that communication is an essential element of safety. I am unaware of any safety system that is so automated that human understanding is not required to make it effective. That means ideas, principles, and procedures must be communicated in every safety undertaking. If people don't understand how to work safely, or how to react in an emergency, then safe conditions don't exist.

After the fire at the Imperial Chicken processing plant in North Carolina, former Assistant Secretary of Labor--OSHA Gerard Scannell urged employers to review the adequacy of their fire safety measures. He recommended that all employers survey their workplaces to determine whethr they have "adequate, readily accessible fire exits, fire alarm systems, proper numbers and types of fire extinguishers, and proper and rehearsed fire evacuation plans."

If it's not too late to recommend New Year's resolutions, I'd suggest that every safety official who has not yet done so resolve to review not only safety equipment and conditions, but also how well employees understand their basic safety responsibilities. …

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