Not so long ago, many supervisors believed that the safety part of their job was completed once the training had been delivered and the paperwork filed – at least until someone got hurt and they had to undertake an accident investigation.
Typically, one of the first steps of a workplace accident investigation involved a look at the training file to confirm that the required instruction had been delivered. Not surprisingly, if a determination was made that the accident resulted from not following the safe work procedures prescribed in the training, the cause would be listed as "lack of attention" or "carelessness." As a result, retraining would be recommended. Rarely would an investigation dig deeper to determine whether the worker had been regularly observed by supervisors to confirm that the prescribed procedures were being followed.
Training remains a vital component of a company’s safety program. Unfortunately, delivering the necessary training is only the beginning. We are offered a reminder via the recent report of a distribution center order picker being awarded over $230,000 in addition to his court costs. An Australian appeal court determined that his former employer, a leading grocery retailer, had breached safety laws, resulting in a severe shoulder injury to the worker.
The plaintiff worked in the perishables section of the warehouse where he picked cases of fruit and vegetables typically in the 28 to 35 lb. range. He received one 10-minute and one 30-minute break during an eight-hour shift. He was one of more than 90 workers at the regional distribution center in 2010. When managers examined the workload each day, the order pickers with the lowest productivity would be the first ones to be sent home first. As such, employees felt pressure to achieve productivity expectations.
The retailer had employed a third party to provide engineered standards, referring to a number of boxes that an employee could be expected to lift safely during a shift.
To achieve productivity, the order picker was believed to have taken unauthorized shortcuts such as lifting two boxes at a time or stretching across a pallet to place a box rather than walking around the pallet to avoid lifting heavy weights away from his torso. Other typical problematic shortcuts undertaken by produce order pickers can include leaning to the back of a pallet to pick up a case, twisting at the waist, bending at the waist rather than at the knees, or stepping on or between wood pallets. Any of these practices can increase the risk of injury.
The judge in the case ruled that the "The training and induction program was comprehensive, and an adequate response to the risk of musculoskeletal injury, but only in theory." He noted that workers had been shown how to lift boxes safely, but such practices had not been enforced on the job.
For its part, a spokesperson for the retailer responded that the "safety of our team members is crucial and we remain committed to providing a safe workplace. We achieve this through training and a range of policies and processes to improve workplace safety standards — we are continuously looking to how we can improve our performance."
The General Duty Clause of OSHA, similar to workers compensation authorities in other countries, states that the employer is assigned responsibility and held accountable to maintain a safe and healthful workplace. In operations where heavy lifting and repetitive motion tasks take place, this responsibility includes ensuring that workers employ safe lifting techniques and other necessary precautions.
Employers are increasingly taking steps to ensure that safe lifting practices are being followed in their facilities. For example, some companies have developed safety checklists to be filled out when employees are observed on the job by supervisors or designated peers. Through regular observation, at risk behaviors can be identified and corrected before serious injuries result, and the generation of observation data can help determine not only the effectiveness of training but also provide a record of a company’s resolve to enforce safety practices.