Chain of Thought

Workers Deaf to Silent Dangers

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan early this year are still making waves among industrial managers. According to a recent survey of safety professionals conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional the majority of respondents (67%) indicated they had a formal workplace continuity plan and 42 percent said they had cross-trained personnel to perform essential functions.

Commendable. But other survey findings may lead the reader to question how well that training took. Eighty-nine percent of these safety professionals also said they had observed workers not wearing safety equipment like ear plugs and safety glasses when they should have been. Twenty-nine percent said this had happened on numerous occasions.

“This high rate of noncompliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols presents a serious threat to worker health and safety,” said Gina Tsiropoulos, manufacturing segment marketing manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional. “While the reasons for noncompliance are varied, the threat to workers is clear-cut. Without the proper use of PPE, they are at risk of serious injury or even death.”

In releasing these results, Kimberly-Clark Professional noted that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires the use of personal protective equipment to reduce employee exposure to hazards when engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or effective. Yet, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that of the workers who sustained a variety of on-the-job injuries, the vast majority were not wearing PPE.

This is the kind of thing that keeps safety professionals up at night—at least the 78 percent of respondents who said workplace accidents and injuries were their major concerns. Worker compliance with safety protocols was also cited as the top workplace safety issue. Twenty-eight percent of respondents chose this. And of those respondents 69 percent said the primary cause was workers thinking that PPE wasn't needed. Non-compliant workers also tend to think such equipment is uncomfortable, too hot, fits poorly, is not readily available near their work task or is just too darn unattractive.

This is not the kind of attitude you'd expect from high-quality, highly motivated workers, but when you consider how hard it is to recruit workers of any kind—particularly young people—into warehousing, it's not surprising there's an attitude problem in some workplaces. There's a lot of churn in these jobs, and there are fewer of them, so you're bound to see spotty performance connected to safety compliance—especially when these workers are spread thin over a wide variety of functions.

I talked to Al Will about this recently. Al is a retired Marine who, besides being on MH&L's editorial advisory board, is taking an active interest in seeing that tomorrow's logistics workers are adequately trained. He's applying the logistics expertise he developed in the Marines to help students at Paul D. Camp Community College in Suffolk, VA, work productively and safely in a warehouse.

“Employers are training employees to perform multiple tasks,” he told me. “They're reluctant to hire, so shifting employees to different tasks within an operation provides flexibility to meet immediate production requirements.”

Another economy employers are adopting that has big safety implications is online training. Al sees this as a trend and that's why he's actively involved in on-site training.

“Our training program requires extensive time on lift trucks actually moving loads in a warehouse,” he added. “There's nothing like stowing a pallet 25 feet in the air with a reach truck knowing if you make a mistake, the load may be resting on your head.”

It seems to me that would be pretty unattractive too, but I guess the connection between pain and a falling 2,000-pound load is easier to grasp than that between deafness and a loud workplace.

Which is probably why it's harder to train employees to wear PPE like safety glasses or ear plugs than it is to train them to slot loads safely. The consequences of flying debris or constant noise aren't as immediate as a crushed skull. But they're just as real.

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