Safety Manager, Des Moines Metropolitan Water Reclamation Authority
In our daily lives, including our workplace, we hear common phrases such as: occupational safety, homeland security, home-security systems, safe and secure, and active shooters. According to Merriam-Webster, safety and security are synonyms. Safety and security are so often used with each other, it can often put safety managers into a difficult situation of having to redefine what it means to implement a safety program in the workplace.
What seems like a lifetime ago, I was an Industrial Hygienist with Iowa OSHA. When I left Iowa OSHA and started with the Des Moines Public Schools as a safety specialist, I thought I knew what it meant to be a safety manager. The first time that someone asked me about how to protect the school from an active shooter, they said to me, “you’re the expert.” At that moment, I literally looked behind me to see if they were speaking to someone else. Yes, I was a Certified Industrial Hygienist and an expert in occupational safety and health; but I was not, at that point in time, an expert in physical security. I quickly learned physical security was just as important to the perception of safety as addressing occupational safety and health hazards. I have taken that experience with me into the next chapter of my safety career with the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority.
During my time as a safety manager for a school district, I learned the phrase “See Something, Say Something.” This is a campaign that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is using for terrorist activities. However, this message is important in the realm of safety and security in the workplace as well.
The current culture of our country requires all workplaces to remain vigilant. According to Wikipedia, the U.S. saw an unprecedented 435 mass shootings in 2019. These shootings occurred in workplaces, schools, malls, neighborhoods, bars, and the list goes on. The need for employees to remain alert to their surroundings only increased when the U.S. used a drone to kill an Iranian leader.
However, as important as it is, the need to stay attentive to our workplace does not solely relate to the physical security of our facility or worksites. It also relates to the hazards that we face every day. These hazards are even more real and ever-present dangers. We work in very dangerous environments and being aware of what is happening around us is especially critical. We cannot afford to become complacent in our normal, everyday settings simply because they are familiar to us.
In a recent study conducted by the American Society of Safety Professionals, 97% of workers surveyed said they were given the authority to stop unsafe work at their company, but only 39% did anything about what they saw. It can be difficult to say something out of fear of being called difficult, paranoid, etc. Sometimes, people just don’t know what to say. Simply asking something like, “do you need help?” could start the conversation in a non-confrontational manner. Employees should be trained that if they are in harms-way, remove themselves from the situation and go to their supervisor.
Sometimes, we think something may be a hazard, but we are not certain. In those circumstances, talk to a supervisor or safety manager about the situation to help determine if, in fact, it is a hazard. If you are the safety manager, call a mentor or trusted member of the safety community to get some perspective and insight. Encourage employees that if they see something unsafe, and can fix it then and there, do so and report it as a near miss.
A common misperception is that safety is the responsibility of the safety manager, supervisor, or safety committee members. In reality, safety is the responsibility of every person in the facility to work safely, including contractors. Many facilities are very large, and it is difficult for one or two people to see every hazard. Just as physical security threatens our safety, so do the very real physical and chemical hazards in our workplace. So, I encourage you to ask yourself and your employees to get out of your comfort zone; and if you see something unsafe, say something.