Safety culture Office Safety Tips

HR and the safety department

Collaboration between the departments is vital to a strong safety culture, experts say


 Photo: shapecharge/iStockphoto

Key points

  • HR and safety overlap in dealing with several areas, including recordkeeping and employee behavior.
  • Regardless of how safety and HR are structured within an organization, stakeholders stress the importance of the units communicating and cooperating with one another.
  • Failure to work together can lead to conflicting messages.

Additional resources

A human resources manager handles hiring, firing, payroll and benefits. The safety professional oversees lockout/tagout, fall protection, machine guarding and personal protective equipment. The two don’t often interact.

Maybe they should.

Both HR and safety are a support function for a larger operation and have similar mission objectives: ensure effective work processes while complying with the law. Although an employer’s safety and HR departments don’t necessarily need to work together to achieve their goals, failure to do so may come at a cost.

“If they don’t work together, employers will only get so far in developing their safety culture,” said Debra Parent, president and owner of Right Fit Recruiting, a Massachusetts-based HR and safety consulting firm.

Avoiding separation

Historically, many safety departments have grown out of HR. Parent outlined a typical scenario: A small company may not need a safety professional right away, so HR gets assigned safety as a type of miscellaneous responsibility. As a result, some organizations may not give full attention to safety.

In this type of situation, HR professionals need to be self-aware enough to recognize that they require assistance, said Richard Grandzol, owner of the Philadelphia-area safety consulting firm Safetysmith Inc.

The biggest concern for many small employers is the bottom line. Although bringing in a safety professional instead of relying on the HR department may affect the bottom line, Grandzol said, ignoring the need for a dedicated safety professional can be more costly. One small company without a safety pro he was brought in to help had recently received a surprise OSHA inspection that resulted in a $22,000 fine.

“When you have 16 employees, that’s almost having to give up an employee to pay that fine,” he said.

When a company grows large enough to justify a dedicated safety professional, safety and HR usually become separate departments. According to Parent, this division is where problems can begin. When HR and safety are split into different departments, she said, they may fail to communicate or work together. They even may begin to work against one another.

For example, HR may want to incentivize workers to become more productive. Depending on the type of incentive, the program could negatively affect the development of a positive safety culture by emphasizing production over safety performance, Parent warned.

“Obviously, their interests in complying with safety rules are going to be minimal and their injuries are going to be high,” she said.

It’s important for a safety professional to play a role or provide input in HR decisions such as incentive programs, training, hiring and promotions – issues that may be at the core of a company’s safety culture. “If the safety officer can’t touch any of that ... they’re going to get nowhere,” Parent said.

Take promotions and advancements, for example. If employees being promoted have the greatest output but their safety record is ignored, the employer is sending the message that productivity is more important than safety, according to Parent. This can affect a company’s safety culture for years.

A strong HR leader will play a role in any advancement or promotion within the company, Parent said. If that HR professional has a solid understanding of occupational safety, or works close with the safety professional, he or she likewise will not promote workers who fail to emphasize safety.

Overlapping responsibilities

Several aspects of safety and HR may overlap, which highlights the importance of the two units working together closely, said George Boué, human resources vice president at Stiles Corp., a real estate development company in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Boué is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Special Expertise Panel, and spoke to Safety+Health on behalf of the Alexandria, VA-based membership organization.

One example is employee misbehavior. Employee horseplay or bullying has a workplace safety component, and the safety professional should be involved in resolving the case. However, Boué recommended that HR take the lead on correcting the situation, as disciplinary action may need to be taken. The safety professional also may lack the knowledge to handle any potential legal or liability issues involved, he added.

Another gray area is alcohol and drug abuse. Clearly, any worker under the influence poses a safety hazard. Safety and HR professionals should work together on the issue, especially if a supervisor plans to terminate the worker – HR can help ensure the dismissal is handled professionally to avoid a lawsuit.

Parent said some HR professionals lack basic safety knowledge, including what might constitute a recordable injury. Considering that in many organizations HR is responsible for a variety of recordkeeping duties, this lack of knowledge could become problematic.

Over the years, Grandzol has worked with employers that did not have a dedicated safety professional. The HR staff was very knowledgeable on workers’ compensation issues but may not have understood that not every OSHA recordable is a workers’ comp injury. As such, some injuries may have been left off the log.

“Their HR person often wears the safety hat, and they really don’t get a lot of outside training or assistance. So they’re kind of left to their own,” Grandzol said, adding that this leads to a gap in compliance.

To avoid potential recordkeeping violations or mistakes, Boué recommends that project managers or field supervisors – who are closer to the incident – fill out the report. The oversight of safety data itself, such as incident reports or OSHA logs, should go under the safety professional’s umbrella and not HR, he said. However, he stressed the importance of keeping HR in the loop.

“As a general guideline, if it’s something that touches on employment law, then it should be under human resources,” Boué said. “If it touches on OSHA and specific safety and health regulations, then it should be under safety.”

But even when employers follow this rule of thumb, it’s important for safety and HR to keep each other apprised of what they are working on, he said.

Don Dressler, a consultant in California, brought up a third component that must work with safety and HR: line management. “Who’s going to do the hazard inspection, the safety training? Who’s going to know if the guy actually learned it?” he asked.

In those cases, HR, safety and management need to work together to ensure workers are receiving appropriate training and following that training regularly, Dressler said.

Dressler suggested that a correlation exists between safety and what HR can do: If people aren’t happy on the job, they are less likely to be safe because they may not be focused on tasks. Thus, an HR program that helps keep employees happy can have a direct impact on workplace safety. And the reverse is true as well. “There’s nothing like focusing on safety to emphasize to employees their importance and value,” Dressler said.

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