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Three Williamisms about Inspection, Keeping it Clean, and Organizational Failures

by William Tomlin, USF SafetyFlorida Health Leader

William Tomlin1

William Tomlin

When I give a presentation to any group, no matter the industry, I try giving them some take-away points: information I want attendees to take back to their organizations once they leave a presentation. I call these points "Williamisms," or rules of thumb about safety and health management programs.

1. You cannot expect what you do not inspect.

A key safety responsibility is to ensure that any equipment used by employees is in good working condition. OSHA standards require daily, weekly or periodic inspection of nearly all equipment whether manual or powered. But the bottom line is that before using equipment, employees and supervisors should inspect wire ropes, forklifts, circular saws, and even shovels. This Williamism for safety management is that if you expect the tool to operate correctly, it must be inspected frequently to assure it is in proper working condition. Most companies have policies that require employees to return non-functioning tools to their repair shop. This, however, does not preclude the safety manager from completing a facility walk-through, looking for damaged and non-functioning equipment. One idea is for the safety manager to confiscate any non-functioning tools and instruct the employee with the item to have his supervisor meet with the safety manager before it is returned. This action gives the safety manager a chance to discuss the reason for confiscating the non-functioning item, to re-emphasize with the supervisor the need for equipment inspections and, more importantly, to show employees their behaviors are being monitored.

2. If you can’t keep it clean you are probably not keeping it safe.

Housekeeping is critical to a facility’s safety program for two reasons: a clean work place is required by OSHA and, more to the point, it prevents accidents caused by tripping hazards. Poor housekeeping can lead to a multitude of safety sins. Cluttered areas can block access to exits or prevent employees’ access to emergency equipment cut-off switches. Stacked or stored materials often act like a magnet for other unused materials: a small stack of lumber soon becomes a huge stack of lumber, attracting old paint cans and unneeded pallets.

From a business profitability standpoint, deficient housekeeping can indicate a lack of project planning; for example, purchasing new raw materials and not using existing stock. Safety is based on planning, enforcement of rules and a preparation in order to prevent accidents. Accepting a disorganized work area sends a signal to employees, vendors, and customers that the organization may have a disorganized approach to safety and health.

3. Failure starts with “I didn’t know/ I don’t care/ It doesn’t matter.”

When I review organizational failures that lead to accidents, I find that they can often be grouped under three statements: I didn’t know / I don’t care / It doesn’t matter.

The “I did not know” refers to organizations that do not provide initial safety training to new employees. If an accident occurs, this employee has had no training outlining the hazards and proper procedures for the job. Therefore, the employee will say at some point during the review of the accident -“I did not know how dangerous/ how to drive / how much to use” regarding the factors that led up to the accident. "I didn't know" accidents underscore the need for resources and salaries to be invested into the safety program. New-hire training requires unproductive time for basic safety information to be given these employees: a company without a management commitment to safety will see this as an unnecessary expense.

“I don’t care” accidents often point to an organization's failure to enforce safety rules. The organization may have comprehensive safety and health written programs, however, the employee involved in an accident knowingly violated safety rules because he knows there is no enforcement. This employee may have expressed an attitude of “I don’t care what the rules say, I do things my way.” This means supervisors and upper management lack an enforcement mechanism in their safety procedures. Accountability deters employees from violating safety rules.

An accident under the “It doesn’t matter” failure indicates a facility that may have work rules and generally some type of enforcement, but the corporate culture dictates that production overrules safety when “things need to get done.” In this culture, if production necessitates it, safety rules will be violated when a supervisor uses the excuse of meeting the production schedule to push back on established safety procedures. If an accident occurs, the affected employees and his supervisors will acknowledge the written safety rules, but will admit that the production needs caused a suspension of rules, leading to the accident. A corporate safety culture that condones this action is not really committed to a strong safety and health program.

In summary, these Wiliamisms serve as reminders for safety managers to always inspect your workplace, ensure a clean work area and to look for systemic causes for accidents.