Retail Industry Safety: Who Needs a Safety Program at All?

“We’re better off without a safety program.”

…Not What A Safety Professional Wants to Hear

The words hung in the air after he said them. Not the best thing to hear when you are the architect and optimizer of safety programs, brought in to discuss just that. Yet the executive did have a point. He had been in senior management and executive positions for in a number of retail companies for years, and he was accustomed to safety programs for retail stores as mostly low-value with more formality than substance. Legitimate as his concerns might have been, though, they really speak to how well designed and implemented a retail safety program needs to be, not whether you need a program at all.


A specialty grocery retailer (not related to the company mentioned in this article)

Setting the Stage
I was meeting with the vice president of loss prevention of a large specialty retailer just over two years ago. The meeting included representatives from their insurance broker, their workers’ compensation insurance carrier, their liability insurance carrier, and their claims administrators.

Proposing A Safety Program

I’d been invited to this meeting by their workers’ compensation insurance carrier because I’d worked with one of the comp carrier’s other retail clients to develop an overall workplace safety, health, environmental, and guest safety program.  After implementation they experienced excellent results in both incident frequency and severity terms, and the carrier was hoping that this retailer would be open initiating a similar program. As they’d grown to several hundred locations and close to one billion dollars in sales, much of what had worked for them when they were a much smaller organization was not necessarily still optimal for their larger (and growing) operation.

Do They Care?

The Vice President’s statement about not needing a program was not proof that he didn’t care about safety – it was more of a statement to how he viewed the formalized safety programs that he’d been acquainted with in the past. To look at things in a little more detail, this retailer wasn’t ignoring workplace safety and health or guest safety entirely – it just was structured as a marginal endeavor completely handled by groups that had other responsibilities.  Basic compliance was being handled by a combination of efforts from facilities, operations, and human resources internally, and the insurance carriers externally.

Safety Efforts Without A Program

We examined the various things that they were doing related to safety. There were quite a few, across divisional lines. For example:
– The facilities and architecture department ensured that their stores met building and fire codes when they were constructed.
– The facilities group would prepare and post emergency evaluation maps for each facility with exit routes and emergency assembly areas.
– Human resources maintained a section on safety and emergency preparedness in the employee handbook and new employee orientation.
– Human resources maintained the procedures and forms for reporting workplace injuries that require medical treatment.
– Operations used a daily manager’s “four corners” guide which instructed store-level management to circulate through the stores and make sure that everything was in good order and well-presented.
– Operations conducted regular pre-shift meetings in the stores, which were mostly focused on sales and presentation issues but occasionally touched on safety-related items to at least some degree, such as crime prevention.
– Operations maintained a “blackout kit” for each location, which included flash lights, batteries, and chemical glow sticks.
– The property insurance carrier conducted inspections of representative locations (perhaps 5% of all locations) once per year, focusing on fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, fire alarms, material storage, and exits.

How Well Does that Work?

So that is something, for sure. Aside from those specific activities, they also had an overall brand reputation as a company that cared greatly about a well-organized, well-thought-out, carefully presented, total experience for their customers. No casual observer would suggest that they ran a dangerous operation, or didn’t care about the safety of their employees and customers. Yet for any safety or risk professional observing their arrangement, many issues exist with this sort of approach, and much opportunity remains for overall organizational benefits from a well-designed and implemented retail safety program.

High-end retail

High-end retail: Low risk?

The Challenge of Low Risk Environments

There is ample room for discussion about whether his particular company would be most accurately described as a low or moderate risk operation, but suffice it to say that the perception was that the risk was not significant. Of course, if you looked at their historical workers’ compensation and liability claims numbers, you would see that though they had never experienced a headline-grabbing catastrophe, there were plenty of claims that had significant costs, and even some clear trends related to type of injury and circumstances. At the same time, one retail chain with just over 30 locations experiencing a dozen carpal tunnel claims with average total incurred costs over $40,000 each, and over 100 days of lost time average per case, are a very significant issue. Place that in context with the typical retail employee and manager perception that workplace safety “is not a major issue” and you’ll see the difficulty of putting due attention to safety in many retail organizations.

Preconceived Notions

The VP maintained that any sort of focused safety program would not be worthwhile for them, citing the following reasons:

“This isn’t a hazardous environment.”

“Our people have common sense, and we hire good managers who can figure things out pretty well as they go.”

“We don’t have that many accidents”

“Our accident costs are not high, and the cost to implement a safety program would probably be higher.”

…and perhaps most notably:

“We do safety, already, as part of all the other things we do.”

Satisfactory or Self-Satisfied?

Each of those statements from the VP has some level of truth and applicability to it, but each statement also shows some level of misconception or misunderstanding about a prudent approach to hazard risk in a retail operation. Some of what works wonderfully in a small operation just does not scale when you have hundreds of locations, and thousands of employees.

The Rest of The Picture

Yes, the retailer in question was doing a number of things for the safety of their operation. Consider, though, just some of the things that were not covered to any significant degree by their approach:
– Individual and managerial responsibilities to create a safe environment, and specific examples of how that can be done
– What the various hazards that might be encountered in their workplace are, and how to deal with those hazards
– How to identify new and changing hazards as they arise
– How to monitor the work areas and customer areas for hazards
– What to do about hazards when they are found
– How to train employees on specific hazards and control measures
– In-depth emergency preparedness, with location and geographical consideration to specific location preparedness
– How managers can communicate about safety in a constructive and impactful way
– How managers can help employees do their jobs more safety and do a better job at creating a safe environment for customers
– How safety rules and safety practices fit together, and what rules have specific repercussions
– How safety activities are best documented, to fulfill regulatory requirements but also to help reduce incidents and accidents.
– How that emerging exposures and risk trends can be identified and dealt with early
– How that new information from other operations in the retail industry, and other industries as well, can be best brought in to help improve safety
– How targeted safety approaches, particularly in the area of applied practical ergonomics,  can help make employees not only safer, but less subject to fatigue and reduced productivity.
– Any advanced approaches at all, from alertness management, to behavioral safety, to employee-driven safety approaches
– How a positive safety culture and safety climate can contribute to better customer service, quality, and employee morale

What to Do?

Thankfully, the company in question did agree to initiate a safety program, and saw good results from it quickly. Any sizable company or organization needs a deliberate approach to safety. There are many options and stylistic differences possible in the formation of and implementation of a safety program. The common reluctance of retail executives to embrace safety programs should not be a source of frustration for the safety and risk professional. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity to show the deep value of a well-devised program.

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