'Tis the Season for a Reminder about the Human Element of Workplace Health & Safety Programs

Miller & Martin PLLC Alerts | December 01, 2017

by Mike Mallen

This time of year is a perfect time for a reminder of the "why" your business spends the time, energy and investments it does to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for its employees. Each and every person - who is a co-worker, a family member and simply a loved one - is the "why." The following article, originally written for the Tennessee Bar Association newsletter earlier this year, is a reminder of this human element, which is important to consider as plans are put into place for the new year's workplace environmental, health and safety compliance and training programs.

"Minus One" is Worse Than it Sounds When Someone is Injured or Killed on the Job

Precisely because I have practiced OSHA and environmental law for the past 30 years representing contractors and heavy manufacturers, it is not unusual for a client or a chief executive to reach out for practical advice on best practices and methods for reducing and ideally avoiding catastrophic workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities.

Usually, I am disappointed to say, the call comes after the bad thing has happened, and the caller is desperately seeking guidance on how to deal with bereft family members, co-employees, press inquiries, medical examiners, law enforcement investigators and OSHA (or TOSHA) inspectors, all of whom have questions that require immediate answers and are focused on the loss of life or a catastrophic injury or illness which has just occurred in a manufacturing or construction setting. 

Once in a while, however, I feel lucky, fortunate and appreciative.  Those are the less frequent times when a CEO will call me to ask protectively: “How can we be safer?”

On a recent Saturday morning, I was the luckiest OSHA lawyer in the business. The CEO of a national industrial manufacturing company invited me to address his entire workforce at their monthly Saturday morning “all hands-on deck” company meeting.  I spoke last. The speakers before me offered presentations about “the numbers.” They spoke of production, quality control, shipping and receiving, customer service, employee benefits and performance.  These topics had one thing in common – math, numbers and stats: all metrics that were measured, evaluated, sliced and diced.  As I listened to the speakers who preceded me, I folded up my prepared remarks and put them in my pocket. What these managers were saying enlightened me. It changed my message.

In the linear, numeric business world, “minus one” equals “minus one.” What I decided to share with those workers, all of whom had woken early and left their families to meet with their “company family,” was the sorrow that I had observed numerous times in my career. The speakers who went before me provided me with a more meaningful way to narrate it. To make the point, minus one is not minus one when a worker is hurt or killed. Minus one equals minus infinity when that happens, because the impact affects not only the worker but also every person whom that worker loves and cares for and every person who cares for and loves that worker. 

I did share one part of my prepared remarks with the group after talking about the infinite impact that a workplace injury or fatality causes. I read from three obituaries that were related to catastrophic workplace situations in which I had recently been involved. I reminded each person who was polite enough to sit through my remarks that those obituaries did not write themselves. I asked them to think for a minute about the loved ones who were forced to sit down together to recount the lives of people that they had loved and lost because of workplace dangers or carelessness. I have had hundreds of conversations with employers and employees where I have talked about “regs.," OSHA standards, environmental regulations and company policies. Those conversations have to happen. Training is a necessity. 

Notwithstanding all of that, the conversation that I had on that Saturday morning about the infinite impact on loved ones, the opportunity to scare someone straight -- or to make someone more conscious of the consequences when the bad thing happens-was much more impactful.