Thursday, May 31, 2012

Do random workplace inspections reduce worker injuries?

Occupational safety and health inspectorates have a challenging task. The number of workplaces far exceeds the capacity of the inspectors to visit each one. Most inspectorates manage the challenge by allocating resources to programmed interventions and responsive work arising because of serious workplace incidents or complaints. Random, unannounced inspections are often used as part of the targeting procedure but do random inspections actually reduce worker injuries?

A new study [ David I. Levine, Micheal W. Toffel, Matthew S. Johnson, “Randomized Government Safety Inspections Reduce Worker Injuries with No Detectable Job Loss, Science, Vol 336, 18 May 2012] using California data provides a well-researched answer. Michael Toffel, an environmental management expert (Harvard Business School), along with economists David Levine (University of California, Berkeley) and Matthew Johnson (Boston University) created 409 matched pairs of inspected and uninspected workplaces from Cal/OSHA data. Sectors were representative of the higher risk industries in the state and include construction ( general building, special trade contractors), wholesale trade (durable and non-durable goods), metal fabrication (doors, car parts, aerospace products), wood and lumber products, transportation and others. Firms included in the study had at least 10 employees and some had more than 500. The researchers looked at the records for up to four years before and after the year of inspection.

Their study found 9% fewer injuries following the inspection and 26% lower injury costs but no negative impacts on economic factors such as employment, total earnings, or company survival. Importantly, the random-inspection effects endured at statistically significant levels even four years after the year of the inspection.

The study certainly supports the idea that random workplace inspections reduce both minor and major injuries to workers and costs for employers without economic harm to the enterprise or reductions in the labour force.

All studies like this have limitations. There may be other factors peculiar to California that come into play in this study. The selected firms were single establishment firms in high-hazard industries in a specific region. The study does not look at the effects a percieved risk of inspection might have on uninspected firms. Random inspections within a targeted high-risk sector—particularly if well publicized and supported with actual inspections—may increase the perception of detection among all participants in the sector. This may increase the incentives towards improved attention to safety and health. Perhaps a future study will examine this.

The alternatives to random inspections in a sector include targeting firms based on injury rates, geography, severe incidents, and complaints. Each of these strategies has its advantages and disadvantages. Well-publicized blitzes announced in advance for regions, specific industries or equipment theoretically have an impact. Targeting firms with high rates of injury also makes sense but it is hard to know the true injury rate for small firms. On the other hand, firms outside the announced blitz domain and those with lower than average reported injuries may perceive a lower risk of detection of regulatory violations and, for a few, lower incentives to achieve and maintain safety and health in the workplace.

This may not be the last word on the issue but this research offers practical information for the consideration of policy makers and inspectorates.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What’s the connection between complacency and risk?

It was a small thing, something noticed out of the corner of my eye, but the subsequent discussion got me thinking about what was really going on in the workplace and what it says about safety culture.

I was in a workplace the other day and noted the absence of a ground pin on an extension cord. I asked the worker using the cord about it and the worker told me it had been that way for a long time. He hadn’t said anything to anyone about it. His supervisor had used the same cord and did not say or do anything about it. He had not been shocked and his equipment kept working. “So, what’s the problem?” he asked.
The absence of injury is not the same thing as the presence of safety. The extension cord with the missing ground pin is clearly unsafe. It creates a defect in one of the important safeguards, barriers and defences in the workplace that are there to manage the inherent risks. Why didn’t the worker, the supervisor or somebody else do something about it?
On possibility could be intentional neglect. Perhaps the supervisor knows about the safety implications of the missing pin but puts production at a higher priority. There is no excuse for intentionally putting workers at risk. Intentional neglect should be sought out and regulations enforced. Another possibility is ignorance. Perhaps the worker and the supervisor are truly unaware of the risk posed by the missing ground pin. We can do something about unintentional neglect through awareness building, inspection and education. There is a third possibility, one that is more pervasive and, to my way of thinking, more dangerous: complacency.
Maybe, at some point, someone did notice the missing pin and did intend to do something about it. Perhaps they took the extra precaution of making certain only double-insulated equipment was plugged into the cord. Perhaps the cord was reserved for non-polarized, two-pronged plugs—at least until the cord could be repaired. Perhaps, as the days past, using the damaged cord just became a habit—with and without the precautions.

If every time a worker used a defective cord he or she received a mild shock, there would be immediate feedback about the defect. That, of course, would be ludicrous. We are fortunate that most new equipment is designed with redundancies like double insulation to protect workers. Safety, on the other hand, does not provide such immediate and personal feedback. In this case, every time the defective cord was used, the worker was not shocked (no negative feedback) and the equipment worked (positive reinforcement for continuing to use the defective cord).

An extension cord with a missing ground pin left in use and unrepaired may be symptomatic of complacency. If the corporate safety culture is complacent in small things, then how can we expect larger hazards to be recognized and risks controlled?

I recall one safety director encouraging his employees to submit notices to him about hazards they noted. No matter how small, he wanted to know about these hazards— he wanted hundreds every month. Random draws from submissions and regular recognition for submitters provided reinforcement for the program. Most of the notes he received were about small oil spills, broken guards, and unsecured equipment—and the notes usually indicated that the defect had been immediately fixed. The safety director explained the benefits of this approach. Sure, the minor issues are fixed but, more importantly, the approach fought complacency. Workers were attuned to safety and alert to hazards.

To finish off the story, I was back at the worksite the next day. The extension cord was fully repaired with a new, heavy-duty three-pronged plug. It was a small thing: a few dollars for the part, a few minutes for the repair. A small victory in the battle against complacency