Making a Difference for Safety: A Case Study

One of my clients recently mentioned that when safety and risk control is practiced in a more forward-thinking way, it can be hard for the uninitiated to understand what that sort of work looks like. There is enough entrenched perception out there of safety as all about rules and requirements, defined exclusively by OSHA, and embodied by inspections and poorly-produced safety training videos, that examples of a better approach are needed. With that in mind, here is a case study of one example of a real-world project for the improvement of the risk and safety picture in an organization. I will periodically offer additional case studies to shed additional light on how safety and risk approaches can be improved in practice.

Situation
A medium-sized light manufacturing operation (400 employees at three locations) with a full-time safety manager and three safety coordinators (one per site, with safety as a collateral responsibility along with human resources and training duties). The operation had a well-structured traditional safety program in place, and good participation on compliance-related matters overall. The major point of concern was an unfavorable trend of injuries related to lifting and manual material handling, with some high-cost claims and a significant number of lost time cases.

Intervention
Because the company had a fairly complete and well-functioning safety program, a targeted accident prevention approach was selected, related to manual material handling issues. Injuries in the selected category included a large number of lower (lumbar) back issues, as well some neck and shoulder injures. A steering team was selected to do some analysis of the numbers, narratives, accident investigations, and ongoing work activities related to the issue. The steering team was charged with working on both the process-related and problem-solving aspects of the issue. In the course of the team’s analysis and information gathering, as well as through joint discussions with senior management, it was decided to implement a practical ergonomics approach to soft tissue injury prevention. This approach was set up to be led by the employee team, with a management liaison assigned to guide the team and be a connection to department heads and facility leadership.

Choosing an Approach for Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention
The team considered a number of systems for ergonomic approaches and musculoskeletal injury prevention. These approaches had different “headlines,” and were variously billed as:
– Back safety
– Back injury prevention
– Soft tissue injury prevention
– Musculoskeletal injury prevention
– Musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention
– Lifting safety
– Manual material handling safety
– Industrial athletics
– Ergonomics, including the variants of “practical ergonomics,” “occupational biomechanics,” and “applied ergonomics”

Some of these names are applied by the providers of the various approaches with great care, and other names are

Types of Approaches Considered
The main types of approaches evaluated included:

– Traditional approaches that focused on classroom training, posters, videos and rules for workplace activity.

– Topic-based grouped packages of video, multimedia, and interactive material, that included material (mostly aimed at safe lifting and back injury prevention) focusing on task setup and lifting techniques.

– Onsite “school” approaches where trainers are brought in to lead the workforce through training experiences related to back injury prevention. Several of these approaches included rather extensive training with a large amount of material and in-depth in-class exercises. Several of the offerings also included a certification or certificate of completion component.

– “System” approaches where a set of techniques (often with proprietary names, slogans, and support materials) were accompanied by consultation with ergonomists or ergonomics specialists

– Ergonomic evaluation instruments that encapsulate a group of factors that impact ergonomic risk and provide for observation and scoring of work activities with numerical scoring

– Holistic approaches based on varied functional disciplines, ranging from martial arts, to yoga, to dance, to athletics.

– Engineering-centered approaches that place primary (or even exclusive) emphasis on facility, equipment, tools, materials, and job design factors.

– Post-incident topic-independent analysis, such as root cause analysis, fault tree, and cause train analysis

Exalted Methodology
One of the interesting results of this examination and selection process was the relatively common contention among solution providers that their particular methodology was distinctively superior to other approaches. After much examination of the relative differences in methodologies and the

A Hybrid Approach
One of the key takeaways we experienced from the solution selection process was that among varied methods, there were various aspects from several different ones that had particular merit given the situation the client group faced, but there were some approach elements from differing methods that were judged to be a better fit. The result of in-depth examination and analysis was a decision to combine elements of several of the approaches, in a customized fashion with consideration of the unique characteristics of the workplaces in question.

Structure and Sequence
Though the details of the approach for this client are worth exploring, those details will require a separate article. Instead, we’ll focus for the moment on the basic structure and implementation steps employed.

– First, claims, first aid, near-miss, accident investigation, and behavioral observation data was compiled and analyzed.

– Second, the existing safety climate and safety management structure was analyzed.

– Third, engineering factors and job design were evaluated.

– Fourth, a physical technique improvement approach was put into place, including baseline techniques, means to establish checkpoints and job aids, and field reinforcement and adjustments

– Fifth, a separate risk factor “quick check” was rolled out, using different underpinnings than the physical technique improvement above. The difference in model concept turned out to be a significant positive benefit to the this overall approach, giving engaged and motivated employees and their managers a chance to confront the idea that there are different ways to approach complex problems, and that deep improvement endeavors fare much better when they are not viewed as rote exercises.

– Sixth, a continuous improvement team was assembled with membership distinct from the steering committee, with the goal of keeping close tabs on how the process elements of the intervention work, and what extended and expanded elements were right to consider implementing

Results
This particular intervention resulted in a very significant drop in associated claims in the affected categories, across all sites. Though the details of the intervention prevent any simplistic summary of how the process worked, one key thread was the coupling of a sense of ownership and participation from the workforce with concrete and sustained reduction of claims frequency and severity. Some of these details will be covered in future articles, but the main takeaway from this high-level view is that selecting a good strategy, getting the right people involved, providing regular guidance, and securing the active support of upper management provide a solid basis for serious safety improvements.