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January 1, 2012

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What drives workers to take safety shortcuts?

KEY POINTS
  • One major reason why workers take shortcuts is they are in a rush to get the job done.
  • Pointing out the potential negative consequences can help discourage workers from skipping steps.
  • Management should design each job so that the safe way also is the easiest way.

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

I’m running behind schedule. Nothing bad will happen to me. I won’t be up there long. Everybody does it this way.

Thoughts like these might run through a worker’s head before he or she decides to take a safety shortcut. No matter the rationalization for the behavior, not following proper procedures can have disastrous results – hence the phrase, “shortcuts cut life short.” Even workers who have been on the job long enough to know better may cut corners.

But why?

“Most of the time, the shortcut is because somebody has the perception that they’re in a hurry for something,” said Timothy C. Healey, director of safety at the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Co. in Hartford, CT. “What’s interesting to me is what’s driving them to feel that they need to be in a hurry.”

He offered several possible explanations – a personal priority on working fast, job insecurity, the proverbial “time is money” attitude, too few workers to complete the task, or changes in the organization or job roles. Whatever the reason, when the need to work fast outranks the need to work safe, mishaps can occur.

Some employees may be tempted to take safety shortcuts in work scenarios involving the following seven areas.

Hazard recognition

Employees often use checklists to assess hazards in the workplace before beginning a task. This simple step can help prevent incidents – that is, if each hazard is given its due level of attention.

Healey cautioned that, out of complacency or a rush to accomplish tasks, workers may run through a checklist without actually stopping to evaluate each item on the list.

“The hand and eye are checking off the little box on the checklist, but the brain is not engaged in the function,” he said.

At the same time, overreliance on checklists can cause workers to miss something important.

“Checklists are not foolproof,” Healey said. “Checklists can serve as an excellent guide, but [they] may not have a little checkbox for every possible variation that could lead to some sort of a safety issue.”

Ladders

In a warehouse, it is not uncommon for workers to climb onto shelves or racks to reach an object rather than use a portable safety ladder, according to Roger Bryant, manager of safety and Department of Transportation compliance at Water Products Inc. in Owasso, OK.

Bryant reminds workers that the effort to save a few seconds could lead to an injury – even paralysis – if they fall. Additionally, using a ladder improperly can be just as dangerous as not using one at all.

Connie J. Telfeyan, risk/safety manager at Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, cited a case of a maintenance worker using a ladder to install computer cabling in the ceiling. The worker’s shift was almost over, so he quickly set up the ladder and climbed to the highest rung.

As he reached the top – which he should not have been working from – the ladder collapsed and he fell 8 feet to the floor.

“When setting up the ladder, he did not make sure the ladder was locked open,” Telfeyan said in an email to Safety+Health. “In fact, it was not even fully open, so when he neared the top of the ladder with more weight on one side than the other, the ladder actually twisted before collapsing.”

The worker was fortunate to not break any bones, but he was knocked unconscious and suffered a mild concussion.

Vehicles

Pre-trip inspections are important because they help detect problems before a vehicle goes out on the road. In addition to compromising safety, neglecting to check brakes, tires and other vehicle equipment can result in lost productivity.

“We’ve had to transfer a completely loaded trailer before because we couldn’t get lights working,” Bryant said. Of course, if the worker had performed the inspection before loading the trailer, as protocol dictates, the issue could have been resolved before the last minute.

The thought process is, “‘Oh well, everything will be fine. I’m in a hurry and I need to get it loaded rather than take that little bit of time to make sure everything is OK,”’ Bryant said. “Then you put the driver at risk.”

David Novak, safety leader at Cedar Rapids, IA-based Worley Warehousing, encounters problems with forklift operators not looking before backing up.

“We’re running into some minor scrapes, things like that. We just find that people are looking ahead and they just want to back up a couple inches and sometimes, all of a sudden, they scrape a pole,” he said.

The company teaches operators to look left, look right, look behind and look all around before backing up. Novak also addresses the issue in safety meetings, posters, emails and conversations with individual workers, during which he calls out improper actions and reinforces correct behaviors.

Lockout/tagout

Management responsibility
Workers do not make decisions in a vacuum. Safety experts say worker shortcuts often reflect larger problems in an organization. 

Compliance with OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout Standard, which protects workers from unexpected startup of machinery, prevents approximately 120 fatalities and 50,000 injuries each year, according to OSHA.

Despite the obvious benefit, workers still may gamble with safety by attempting to clear jams or fix machines without first stopping the machine.

Doug Dikun, a safety professional based in Carol Stream, IL, described workers performing lockout/tagout “on the fly”: Often on a production line or in a conveyer area, a worker will time the rotation or movement so he or she can dislodge an object with the machine still in motion.

The cost of an error in judgment can be severe. Telfeyan recalled an incident in which a custodian, in a rush to take his lunch break, tried to oil a machine part without turning off the machine. His hand was caught in the fan belt, and he ended up losing a finger.

“We learn [afterward] he has done the machine oiling this way many times before and ‘nothing bad happened.’” Telfeyan said.

To discourage such actions, Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers, advises management to make locks available, ensure access to locking areas, and develop and communicate procedures that are safe and easy to follow.

Confined spaces

Healey sometimes comes across workers taking shortcuts while they are checking the atmosphere of a confined space.

“They’ve been doing it for so long that perhaps some com-placency has crept in,” he said. With the mindset that “we’ve never had a problem before,” a worker may fail to monitor the atmosphere at the top, middle and bottom of the space or overlook a particular anomaly that makes this confined space entry different than previous ones.

“If you don’t follow appropriate procedures,” he warned, “you could find yourself inadvertently sending someone into a low-oxygen environment because you didn’t bother to do the checks as they’re supposed to be done.”

Personal protective equipment

At Irving, TX-based Flowserve Corp., the most common safety shortcut is failing to use gloves or using gloves that are not appropriate for the hazard, according to safety analyst Pam Jones.

As of Oct. 31, 2011, 38 percent of the company’s record-able hand injuries were attributed to glove deficiencies. Flowserve estimates that taking hand safety shortcuts “saved” workers who sustained hand injuries about 25 seconds per incident. Conversely, the consequences included numerous sutures to close wounds, an infected hand and more than 50 lost workdays, Jones said.

To counteract hand protection problems, Flowserve displays boards with a picture and description of proper gloves for each task and continues to train workers on hand protection while discouraging shortcuts.

When workers realize they have forgotten a tool or piece of safety equipment, they either can go back and get it or keep working. Dikun has seen many workers take the latter option or cut corners by “misusing a tool” instead of retrieving the right one. An example would be using a screwdriver as a pry bar or wedge.

In Novak’s experience, PPE compliance often comes down to worker attitude. “If I’ve got a negative attitude, then everything you give me … I’m going to balk at it,” he said. “‘I don’t want to wear the steel toes because they’re cold on my toes’ and ‘My glasses are fogging up.’ But if you have a positive person and they’re on board with everything, then, ‘Yep, no problem; I’ll wear it and get it done.’”

Fall protection

Shortcuts with fall protection come in many forms, such as failing to tie off, using worn equipment, using equipment improperly, and not verifying the strength of the anchorage point. Perhaps the biggest issue is overlooking the need for fall protection for a task that is not expected to take long.

“You think that you have control over your surroundings. You think that you have control over the hazards, but it takes a split second to fall,” said Thomas Kramer, president of the International Society for Fall Protection, based in Dayton, OH.

He noted that unlike safety glasses or hearing protection, workers do not typically wear harnesses in off-the-job activities. “The use of fall protection equipment isn’t as intuitive as other forms of PPE, so that’s a big issue,” he said.

Along with enforcement, safety programs should help workers understand the hazards and provide real-world scenarios of worker exposure to falls. For example, a worker wearing a harness falls but remains suspended in the air: When discussing the issue with workers, “Don’t ask the question, ‘How long do you think someone can suspend in a harness?’” Kramer said. “Ask the question, ‘How long do you want to be suspended in a harness?’”

He has found that workers say a much shorter length of time when the scenario is reframed to put their life on the line.  

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