Occupational safety: the gravity of the risk to people and practical consequences for the company

Many times and in various countries of the world, I have seen occupational safety treated as a matter of respecting the law even if corporate policies and codes of ethics would often say the opposite, i.e., that the safety of a company’s employees is one of the primary assets of that company.

Alessandro Mazzeranghi, MECQ S.r.l.

It happens, however, that statements of principle are ignored in actual day-to-day operations, and priority is given to the law and the legal protection of persons who hold positions of concrete responsibility. This is a shortsighted way to address the issue and moreover it demonstrates poor management skills. In proposing investments aimed at improving health and safety conditions in the company, executives having actual spending power often insist on the personal responsibility of the manager before the law. I find it depressing and I refuse to adopt this “strategy”. Instead, I believe that any investment should give a real benefit to the whole company, not necessarily in direct and personal form. And regarding health and safety at work, where does the possible benefit lie? In the prevention of injury to people working in the company, whether they are employees, contractors or individuals present in any other capacity. The benefit comes from that protection, without which there is first injury to the persons harmed and then all the consequences for others and for the company itself.

WE SHOULD REVERSE THIS DISTORTED CONCEPT OF RESPONSIBILITY THAT WE CARRY WITH US, and that to a greater or lesser extent has taken root in all countries where there is well-developed legislation on occupational health and safety. If there is no damage to persons, the violations may be termed formal. They can still lead to very unpleasant consequences for the company but somehow a way to remedy them will be found. So it is not helpful to start from a concept of strict compliance with applicable laws if there are still possibilities of danger to persons which could have been addressed and improved. The primary factor that should guide priorities when speaking of any investment for improvements in occupational health and safety is the opportunity to reduce the extent of injury to persons or the likelihood of such injury occurring. In short, in terms closer to the principles universally adopted by legislation on occupational health and safety, the primary factor that determines the priorities is risk assessment.

A SIMPLIFICATION. Risk assessment is, of course, the best instrument for determining priorities on measures to improve health and safety at work. But it is not a trivial task to adopt this instrument, which tends to give very subjective results. We could say, then, that it is an ideal instrument when used by trained specialists. By contrast, the choices for improvement are often made and guided by the judgment of people who have no specialized training but who do have a real opportunity to observe situations that may arise. What is the risk? That these people see a critical situation but then in trying to make a risk assessment according to the parameters that someone has tried to teach them, they underestimate the risk (by not communicating it) or overestimate it (by inundating safety specialists with useless communications). In each case, they produce inefficiency and with the (few) resources available to companies today, any inefficiency must be avoided at all costs.

MAKING A GOOD RISK ASSESSMENT, correctly taking into account the usual parameters of gravity of the possible injury and probability of the harmful event occurring, is not difficult but requires a great deal of training. Training that only those who dedicate an important part of their working time to this issue can have. First of all, let’s clear up the idea that those involved in safety (not full-time) should know how to recognize what conforms and what does not conform. This is an issue for other figures to handle. They must instead know how to distinguish what is intact from what is faulty, and in many cases they can do this by observing the simple difference between how it was at the start and how it is now (be it equipment, a ladder, a parapet or a working tool). Secondly, let us consider the mental filters to be used to understand if a condition observed is really dangerous or if it is not worthy of particular attention. A good solution is to forget thinking about the likelihood that the harmful event occurs, instead keeping in mind the estimate of the gravity of the possible consequences. In practice, the following reasoning may be useful (pursuant to a simple logical flow in response to a series of questions):

• The worker spots a potential source of danger: gears in motion, a hot surface, fluid squirting under pressure or a cutting instrument. • At this point, he/she should consider if there is a possibility that someone comes into contact with this source of danger. If it is obvious that it is impossible that someone could be exposed to the hazard, the analysis stops here and there is no need for any form of communication to others.

• In the opposite case, the next question to be asked is linked to the maximum injury that may result to a person in case of accident or occupational disease. If permanent injury is involved, even minimal, the situation requires a serious and comprehensive analysis and therefore it is necessary to engage a specialist. Of course the answer given by the specialist, who will review all aspects previously summarily considered in detail and with greater expertise, might be at odds with the impressions of whoever originally spotted the potential hazard. These things happen, there is nothing wrong; we must just seize the opportunity to improve the skills and abilities of staff who spot hazards.

HAZARDS SPOTTED AND DECISIONS MADE. This approach could be extended to other levels, too. While it is true that a well-conducted risk assessment can only take into account, in a balanced way, gravity and probability, in the world of tissue the risks are not so severe and specific as to allow the adoption of analytical and objective methods of estimating probability (those normally used in chemical or power production plants). Estimation of probabilities remains a rather subjective issue and difficult to justify in the event of dispute. So the idea of mainly using considerations of gravity can be valid even when management decisions have to be made. When all is said and done, experience shows that even small injuries are certainly to be avoided, but they do not create upheavals in company operations, while just one very serious event can have unpredictable consequences. So once again, the important issue is the ability of everyone, from workers in the departments concerned to managers, to recognize the dangers and to understand their potential gravity.

Login or Register to publish a comment