We often hear the saying “We need to improve safety,” but what does that actually mean? Does it mean we have fewer reportable incidents, or fewer workers’ compensation claims, or a reduction in fatalities as an industry? I think it encompasses that and more, but how do we tackle such a large, and potentially amorphous, idea?
If you look at one of the most successful safety campaigns, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Click it or Ticket initiative, you will see that in 2019, according to NHTSA, 9.3 percent of Americans still did not buckle up when driving. Kids are inundated with the saying and it rolls right off the tongue, but yet we do not have 100 percent compliance for a safety measure that could easily save your life, especially in the age of distracted driving.
What is the workplace safety equivalent to Click it or Ticket? I would say that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Safe + Sound campaign is trying to fill that gap. Not only is it a well-developed program to get companies to think about safety and health management programs, it rolls off the tongue easily and you could imagine a spouse asking their loved one, “Are you going to be safe and sound today?” The Safe + Sound program promotes safety and health management plans with three core elements:
- Management Leadership
- Worker Participation
- Find and Fix
Each core element is important, but without management leadership, I believe the other two are not as impactful. The honorable Paul O’Neill, former Alcoa CEO and Secretary of the Treasury, said it best: "Only a leader can establish aspirational goals. And if your leader doesn't say it and mean it, that 'people who work here should never be hurt at work,' it's really hard to get that from the bottom up."
This commitment from the top was evident from a number of companies during our industry’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. In late March and early April, I received a number of requests from vice presidents and directors of safety at various companies asking for their CEO/owner/C-suite representative to be added to the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) Safety Committee, adding to the list of owners and C-suite representatives already on the committee.
The additional senior leaders helped reinforce our COVID-19 safety messages as well as the foundational safety messages our industry preaches every day. Recent analysis by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation shows the waste and recycling industry had a lower infection rate and fatality rate than the general public, illustrating that our safety messages and safety practices work.
Management does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Worker participation during the COVID-19 epidemic was evident from the numerous suggestions that were provided to the NWRA Safety Committee, such as providing handwashing in the field, limiting contact at the scale house and modifying operations. Sometimes these suggestions were outlandish—one hand washing station was mistaken as a still, and one company used a 5-gallon bucket with a spigot. Better yet, some scale house operations placed a plastic curtain over the window, similar to those used with freezers. All of these suggestions were compiled into our field guide that enabled other companies to use good ideas.
Nothing will drain the confidence of your team than when management leadership shows commitment to improving safety but doesn’t actually follow through with the fix. One interesting find-and-fix solution during the COVID-19 epidemic was finding hand sanitizer for the workforce when our normal supply chains were not available. NWRA worked with the National Independent Distillers Association to engage with its members to find hand sanitizer.
Another major concern was the disinfection of trucks and yellow iron cabs; commercial foggers were not available, so we turned to agricultural suppliers for sprayers and disinfectant to clean and disinfect the trucks in preparation for the next shift.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise throughout the country, we need to continue to provide our workers with reassurance and knowledge related to COVID-19 for safe operations and to continue the momentum around safety writ large. Our employees are paying attention to safety messages about COVID-19, so we should capitalize on that attention by talking about the foundational safety practices that will bring them home each day and make them safe and sound.