Back to Basics, EHS Management, Safety Culture

Back to Basics: Worker Participation

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine worker participation and how leaders can help their employees get involved in safety.

In order to build a strong, effective safety culture, there must be buy-in from all employees at all levels, from the C-suite to the temporary worker. Employee engagement is essential to creating and maintaining a sense of commitment to safety and to minimizing hazards and incidents. OSHA has several recommendations for leaders to help their workers get involved and participate in safety programs.  

Worker participation

According to OSHA, worker participation means that workers are involved in establishing, operating, evaluating, and improving the safety and health program. All employees at a jobsite should contribute, including those employed by contractors, subcontractors, and temporary staffing agencies.

In an effective safety and health program, all workers are encouraged to participate in the program and feel comfortable providing input and reporting safety or health concerns. They have access to information that is needed to effectively contribute to the program, and they have opportunities to participate in all phases of program design and implementation. They also do not experience retaliation when raising concerns about safety or health issues, reporting injuries or illnesses, participating in the program, or exercising their safety and health rights.

Where workers are represented by a union, it is important that worker representatives also participate in the safety program, consistent with the rights provided to worker representatives under the OSH Act of 1970 and the National Labor Relations Act.

Action items

OSHA recommends five action items that leaders can take to help increase employee engagement.

Encourage worker participation. By doing this, management shows that it values worker input into safety and health decisions. Give workers the necessary time and resources to participate in the program. Acknowledge and provide positive reinforcement to those who do participate, and maintain an open-door policy that invites workers to talk to managers and make suggestions.

Encourage reporting of safety and health concerns. Workers are often in the best position to identify safety and health concerns and program shortcomings, such as emerging workplace hazards, unsafe conditions, close calls and near misses, and actual incidents. Establish a process for workers to report injuries, illnesses, close calls, near misses, hazards, or other safety and health concerns. Respond to reports quickly, and include an option for anonymous reporting to reduce fear of retaliation.

Report back to workers routinely and frequently about actions taken in response to their concerns and suggestions. Emphasize that management will use reported information only to improve workplace safety and health and that no worker will experience retaliation for bringing such information to management’s attention.

Give access to safety and health information. Sharing relevant safety and health information with workers fosters trust and helps organizations make more informed safety and health decisions. Give workers the information they need to understand safety and health hazards and control measures in the workplace. Some OSHA standards require employers to make specific types of information available to workers, such as the following:

  • Safety Data Sheets (SDS)
  • Injury and illness data
  • Results of environmental exposure monitoring conducted in the workplace

Injury and illness data may need to be redacted and aggregated to eliminate personal identifiers, and the disclosure of sensitive and personal information should be prevented as required in exposure monitoring results.

Other useful information for workers might include chemical and equipment manufacturer safety recommendations, workplace inspection reports, workplace job hazard analyses, and incident investigation reports, without the disclosure of personal and sensitive information as required.

Involve workers in all aspects of the program. Doing this step improves leadership’s ability to identify the presence and cause of workplace hazards, creates a sense of program ownership among workers, enhances their understanding of how the program works, and helps sustain the program over time. Provide opportunities for workers to assist in the following:

  • Develop the program and set goals
  • Report hazards and develop solutions that improve safety and health
  • Analyze hazards in each step of routine and nonroutine jobs, tasks, and processes
  • Define and document safe work practices
  • Conduct site inspections
  • Develop and revise safety procedures
  • Participate in incident and close call/near miss investigations
  • Train current coworkers and new hires
  • Develop, implement, and evaluate training programs
  • Evaluate program performance and identify ways to improve it
  • Take part in exposure monitoring and medical surveillance associated with health hazards

Remove barriers to participation. Workers need to feel that their input is welcome, their voices will be heard, and they can access reporting channels. Participation will be suppressed if language, education, or skill levels in the workplace are not considered, or if workers fear retaliation or discrimination for speaking up.

Ensure that workers from all levels of the organization can participate regardless of their skill level, education, or language. Provide frequent and regular feedback to show employees that their safety and health concerns are being heard and addressed. Authorize sufficient time and resources to facilitate worker participation. An example of this is holding safety and health meetings during regular work hours.

Ensure that the program protects workers from being retaliated against for reporting injuries, illnesses, and hazards, participating in the program, or exercising their safety and health rights. Also, be sure to check that other policies and programs do not discourage employee engagement.

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