Almost any company these days has a safety department, committee, branch, or division. Sometimes entire armies of inspectors and supervisors travel to sites waving the banner of “Safety First”, “Zero Lost Time Incidents”, “Safely Home”, “Journey to Zero”, and many other such slogans. Carrying clipboards and making sure all the workers are wearing the appropriate personal protection equipment and performing job tasks correctly, they also will almost certainly ask to see your hazard assessment documentation. Managing safety has become an industry unto itself. My current employer retains two full time staff tasked exclusively with safety matters, in addition to a safety committee of a dozen or so “volunteers” at each physical plant site.
At one of my previous employments I myself was tasked with being the Safety Manager for the facility of some 200 workers, responsible for making sure the workplace was as safe as was reasonably possible.
I am always suspicious whenever someone’s paid job is to look out for my best interest; those two motivations are in polar contradiction with each other. Generally speaking, no company is going to pay out cash to look after the best interests of an employee, unless those best interests are first serving the company’s best interests. So let’s look at Safety through this lens and call it what it really is: Liability Reduction Management.
If you get hurt on the job, you must file a claim with the Worker’s Compensation Board, who themselves launch an investigation into the incident that lead up to your injury. If they find that your employer did not take reasonable steps to ensure that your workplace and the activity you are expected to do as part of your line of work was safe, they can be held liable to cover the medical expenses of your recovery and in some cases, compensation for any losses pertaining to the nature of the injury. Safety staff are your company’s answer to this situation, tasked not with making sure that you are safe, but with ensuring that the company cannot get sued or fined should anyone on their payroll get injured on the job. It’s as simple as that.
So why the title of Safety? It’s a facade – a sugarcoating to make the situation more palatable to those being harassed by employees who are extensions of the company’s legal department with the power to send you home or even terminate you for lack of compliance with their liability mitigating strategies, aka “Safety Policies”.
Safety = Scapegoat.
The entire safety movement revolves around the idea of making the employee liable for their own actions. Make no mistake – I am not against this concept – I believe that every person ought to stand or fall by the decisions they make, but sometimes those decisions can affect other people. Just call it what it is.
Say two employees are working together on something inside a ceiling in an office building. They have a ladder, are wearing steel toed boots and safety glasses. The fellow at the bottom of the ladder even holds the ladder steady and ensures that no one collides into the base of it so that the fellow in the ceiling can concentrate on the tasks he is to perform. Now let’s say that while the employee is working on top of the ladder, a tool falls out of his hand and lands on the employee’s head who is holding the ladder below.
Enter: An Incident.
The safety officer for the company attends the site, interviews both employees and surveys the area in which the incident took place. He concludes that although they had taken some steps towards working safely given the environment, he notes that their hazard assessment did not include “things falling from above” and also that the employee below was not wearing a hard hat (even though this is an office building where hats are considered rude) and therefore – did not follow the company’s safety policy and therefore … drumroll … the company is not liable with the Worker’s Compensation Board because, to put it bluntly, it was his own damn fault.
It is all about liability mitigation; passing the buck from the employer to the employee. And I’m fine with that, but please – call it what it is.