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Communication, training and accountability are key when introducing new safety policies in the workplace, two speakers noted during a recent American Bar Association meeting.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a number of new standards over the past few years, and employers need to think about how to revamp safety policies to comply. For instance, new OSHA standards, regulations and policies have placed limits on post-accident drug-testing programs and have required certain measures to protect workers from silica and beryllium exposure.
How to get buy-in from supervisors and employees may depend on the workplace, said Steven Fine, an attorney with Messner Reeves in Chicago who formerly worked in labor relations for McDonald's Corporation.
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Communication and training are key, Fine said during a March 10 panel discussion at the association's Occupational Safety and Health Law Midwinter Meeting. That includes training when onboarding new workers, he said. "That sometimes gets overlooked."
He said McDonald's created safety training videos for new workers to watch. Smaller employers, however, may lack the resources to understand and comply with OSHA standards, he added.
Education is key, agreed Matt Compher, vice president of safety, health and environment for Quanta Services in Houston—an engineering, procurement and construction services provider with over 25,000 employees. Compher said everyone needs to be involved, from the safety staff down the line, to put new safety standards in place. That means front-line supervisors, middle managers, rank-and-file workers and clients. He said businesses also have to consider the additional expenses involved in providing new equipment and training.
It's important to take the time to explain to front-line supervisors and employees why the company is introducing new safety programs, Fine said.
Said Compher: "The workforce has changed over the last 20 years, and we've spent more time educating employees about safety and giving them more of a role in safety procedures."
Compher recalled rolling out new policies when electrical workers were no longer allowed to free-climb poles.
"The linemen felt like we were taking their skill away," he said. "They spent many years learning how to free-climb, and we had to explain that it's not about skill." Rather, it's about safety.
When employees don't follow a policy, employers need to investigate and figure out what went wrong, he said. "Is there a culture within that workgroup we need to address?" he asked. "Most of the time, it's not the employee's total disregard."
Employers sometimes hesitate to discipline employees for failing to follow a safety policy, Fine said. Disciplinary actions will end up in a worker's personnel file, which may not be ideal. However, if workers aren't disciplined, there may be no documentation to show OSHA during an investigation, he noted.
"Some employees just don't follow the rule, and that's when you have to think about disciplinary measures," he said.
"What unions, management lawyers and employers want [are] effective safety systems," Fine said. "Employers generally are well-meaning and want to follow the rules. They'll fall down sometimes, there will be rogue managers that don't follow the rules and employers will be held responsible for that. But the vast majority of employers are law-abiding and want to comply."
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