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Changing employee behavior key to controlling injuries

A worker in a machine shop in Illinois is injured when a conveyor belt snaps and strikes him in the face. On the surface, this appears to be a common workplace injury, especially in an environment where belts and pulleys are moving at high speed.

But you may be surprised to learn that it is more likely, even 20 times more likely, that the same worker heads out on injured leave by twisting his back bending down to pick up his tool box, or slipping on a wet floor due to anything from an oil leak to condensation from a large Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.

According to a study conducted by DuPont on all accidents the company experienced over a 10-year period, 96% were due to unsafe actions by employees who were going beyond their limits, rather than unsafe conditions. Meaning, trying to pick up a 400-pound piece of machinery all by yourself wasn’t such a good idea after all.

A 2006 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Study backs up this data with findings that show more than 50% of all workplace injuries are a result of overexertion, falls, twisting the wrong way, etc.--resulting in estimated annual Workers’ Compensation costs of just over $46 billion.

What we have is the perfect storm, where the number-one cause of workplace injury—overexertion resulting in hard to diagnose and equally hard to treat muscular-skeletal sprains and strains—is the number-one most costly of injuries. So, what can be done to reverse the trend?

On the surface, it would seem that the most likely place to turn would be OSHA, which for the past 30 years has been the guardian when it comes to workplace safety. Although there has been a strong increase in the awareness of making the workplace safer, OSHA’s focus hasn’t been on the behavioral aspects of the job. It is all about compliance and findings; in short, it’s harder to change behavior than it is to change a facility, and easier to fix a faulty piece of machinery than it is to convince a worker not to try to move it.

Perhaps one of the main reasons employers have not been more aggressive in trying to get OSHA involved is that business owners are skeptical when someone says, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The fear is that once they are invited in, they won’t leave… and once they’re in, what will they find?

It makes more sense for business-owners to take the initiative themselves through performance appraisals, starting with front line supervisors who need to make sure injury prevention is part of the overall workplace scorecard. Supervisors need to raise awareness among the rank and file to work as a team, and to look after one another. It’s extremely important that workers understand and support the policies put in place, all with the immediate goal of workplace safety.

This teamwork can also generate incentive programs, above and beyond the obvious number-one incentive of avoiding injuries on the job. All should share in reaping the rewards of a safe workplace, whether it’s a certificate on a wall, a pin on a uniform, or a cookout at the end of the summer. By replacing the “us vs. them” mentality that can often fester on the job into a “we’re all in this together” credo, major steps have been made to keep workers healthy and on the job.

But that having been said, at the end of the day, it still starts with hiring the right people for the right job, and giving them the needed education and training to do the job properly and safely within their limits.

By doing so, the added rewards can include lower premiums, increased workplace safety, fewer injury-related absences, and even inclusion in OSHA’s SHARP Program. The Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) recognizes small employers who operate an exemplary safety and health management system. Acceptance into SHARP by OSHA singles out a company as a model for worksite safety and health. Once a company receives the SHARP recognition, its worksite is exempt from programmed inspections during the period that the SHARP certification is valid.

Human behavior is hard to change. Millions of years ago, some guy in a cave saw a big rock and said to himself, “I can pick that up, no problem.” Next thing you know, he throws out his back, can’t outrun a T-Rex, and… well, you know how that ended. But in today’s workplace, with the proper training and front-line supervisors at the top of their game, supported by the workers around them who know their limits, injuries can be avoided.