Employees are the frontline of any workplace and are the members of staff most at risk and have most likely witnessed an accident, near-miss or some form of misconduct. They are simply management's best resource when establishing a workplace Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) strategy.
Engaging contractors to help your business reach OH&S compliance is just the starting point. Compliance often means a workplace has an OH&S framework, but that framework is just the bare bones of a complete working OH&S system. It takes both the employer and their employees to work together in finding and addressing hazards in a workplace and build a reliable working system that keeps everyone involved with a safe workplace.
Staff are the first line of defence and the people most likely to spot an issue. For example an employee in the Public sector identified a hazard of water on the floor in the staff kitchen. They mopped up the water and went about their business of making a cup of coffee, sometime later another employee walked into the kitchen and slipped over in a new pool of water. Fortunately this employee was not injured, the employee who initially cleaned up the water heard about what happened spoke to the other employee. They mentioned that they had already cleaned it up once today. So now they knew that this wasn’t an isolated event and although they had tried to remove the hazard, this was something that they could not fix. The employees went back to the kitchen, once again mopped up the small amount of water on the floor and this time put a sign out letting others know that the floor was slippery and wet. They also went and informed their manager of the issue and how mopping it did not stop the water from reappearing over time. The manager investigated the issue and determined that the dishwasher in the kitchen had a small leak in a hose and water was dripping out into the cupboard and onto the floor.
By the employees identifying this hazard and informing their manager that it was something that they couldn’t fix themselves it enabled the manager to get the issue resolved by contacting building maintenance in a timely manner without creating further damage to the kitchen. If these employees hadn’t communicated and identified an issue and taken steps to prevent a situation becoming worse what could have happened? If they had left work 5 pm and not mentioned the water leak, what would the cost be? Regardless there wasn’t an issue because two conscientious employees trained to identify risks and follow simple procedures did what was required and stopped an issue from becoming a problem.
Employees are the front line of any workplace when dealing with safety issues, they are the ones most at risk but also best placed to identify issue, raise concerns and suggest ways to mitigate problems. But collaboration is a key to safety. In our example two employees saw potential injuries averted by talking to each other and identified and ongoing issue. Then reduced the hazard, employed signs to notify others and finally mitigates future damage by notifying the appropriate personnel. Their actions prevented injuries, reduced cost and made sure the workplace was open for business the following day.
Recently an employee was in a motor vehicle accident (non-work related) and received a serious leg injury. When the employee returned to work she identified that it was difficult to walk up a particular set of stairs as there was no handrail. The employee spoke to a colleague about how difficult it was getting up the stairs, the other employee mentioned that they had overheard a few clients say something similar. This issue was brought up at a staff meeting with the employer, staff agreed it was a safety issue as any staff member or client could potentially fall or slip. They also identified that it would prove useful to have a handrail for clients, as a few clients were elderly and could benefit from a handrail.Again we see staff collaboration lead to the resolution of the issue and a handrail was installed.
Talking, identifying and suggesting solutions to health and safety issues is something we do naturally. In the first example mopping up water to prevent someone accidentally slipping is something most of us would do. A response we were trained to do growing up. However the next step, bringing an issue to the notice of authority isn’t a comfortable task for everyone.
Training is a way to give employees and manager alike the skills and confidence to tackle health and safety issues in the right way. With training staff can contribute significantly to the OH&S system. Trained to identify risks they can bring them to the attention of the people responsible almost immediately, as seen in our first example, then monitor the outcomes to reduce their likelihood of recurrence.
Understanding and working with the OH&S system builds confidence amongst staff of it’s capacity to protect. Watching an elderly customers entering her office assisted by the newly installed handrail, probably made our employee with the injured leg feel proud. By solving the issue she identified her employer also assisted others and showed all employees that staff safety was taken seriously. It wasn’t difficult or confrontational. But it may have been if someone was hurt. The situation could quickly become confrontational as people apportion out blame.
With suitable OH&S training, consultation between employees, management and even customers is no longer confrontational and becomes collaborative. Collaborative dialog helps break down the barriers giving staff an avenue and confidence to approach management on issues of safety. In turn increasing the speed and effectiveness of the OH&S system. Management and staff work together to find solutions and set up systems that protect all who enter the workplace. Greatly reducing the likelihood of disputes, finger pointing and legal action.
Workmates naturally help each other and try to keep the workplace safe. These are natural human reactions. Conditioning learnt from childhood. Picked up by witnessing incidents and people's reactions, through demonstration and being shown hazards or unfortunately by experiencing injury first hand. We develop a set of self preservation strategies. These strategies are often transferable to the workplace and in many cases employee have the potential of contributing to the overall safety of the workplace by sharing their experiences, knowledge and intellect.
But not everyone's experience are transferable to the work environment, some will be too general, others too specific and others not applicable and possibly even dangerous. Training and discussion with properly trained staff will assist staff to identify which of their experiences are transferable, which can be modified to suit and those that are not applicable.
Employee contribution to the OH&S system through peer discussion and collaboration with management, helps staff become familiar with OH&S. They find out why things are done a certain way, and what needs to change to make their workplace safer. They identify with aspects of the OH&S system, because they are familiar with the issue. They also see similarities with their own experiences and share ideas which contributed to the developing OH&S system. Understanding and identifying aspects of the OH&S make it easy for employees to own the OH&S system and their safety. So when changes are rolled out to implement safety changes they embrace the changes instead of fighting them.
If your looking to setup a new OH&S system in your workplace or update an existing system. Training is the key to a smooth transition and acceptance by government and your staff. We all know that a safe workplace doesn’t happen by chance. It takes training, know how, collaboration and great people.
Denise Mercer has been the Senior Trainer and Manager for Unity Training Services since 2012. She holds Diploma's in work health and safety and management and is Certificate IV qualified across a wide range of occupations including warehousing, asset maintenance and mental health.
Prior to joining Unity Training Services, Denise was an experienced Prison Officer and Health and Safety Representative in the prison system then worked professionally as a health and safety trainer.