Want to keep workers safe and healthy? Start with your supervisors.

Empire State Building workersAccording to a study by Deloitte, American businesses spend $70 billion a year and corporate training is growing by 15% a year.  The question is not whether your company needs to train employees; it is where your investment in training will have the biggest payoff.

The evidence is growing that spending on training for your supervisors and front line managers may be the best investment of your training dollars if you want to increase productivity, improve safety culture and reduce the cost and severity of injuries.  Part of this is just commonsense.  Supervisors spend more time with employees and have more direct impact on shaping attitudes, engagement and culture than any other position within a company.  In companies where new workers learn on the job, supervisors may have the most important role in the company.

Now research from Liberty Mutual Insurance shows that training supervisors in the soft skills of how to communicate with and gain the trust of an injured worker is a significant factor in how long that worker stays off the job and the severity of certain injuries. The study looked at work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), such as low back pain and upper extremity disorders.   They found that the supervisor’s interaction with a worker with WMSD had a lot to do with the level of treatment necessary and how long the worker was away from the job.  Now surprisingly, if the supervisor blames the worker for the injury and complains about delays in production or impacts on OSHA recordables, it has a negative impact on the injury.

But the most interesting result of the study was that a short training class for supervisors dramatically improved the outcome of future injuries for employees working under that supervisor.  Training supervisors on how to relate to employees and what to do immediately after an injury helps keep workers and the company bottom line healthier.

In another study, a food service consultant named Alchemy found that when they taught supervisors how to reinforce worker training with corrective observations, the companies involved in the study saw a 26% improvement in safety compliance.   Again, company programs and worker training may be wastes of time and money if supervisors aren’t on board with implementing them.

How are you training your supervisors?  Are you teaching them the skills that are proven to improve safety and production, like communication and responsibility?   Our supervisory and leadership class, Buddy-to-Boss, is designed to help line managers make the career transition to manage crews and represent the company.  Unlike most leadership classes, we can tailor classes to your specific needs and policies.  Contact us at info@lifelinestrategies.com to learn more.


New Study Tracks Causes and Costs of American Workplace Injuries.

Most frequent cause of injuries on the job: Material Handling –  32% of injuries are caused by workers lifting, lowering, filling, emptying or carrying objects.

Most expensive injuries: Amputations – Indemnity claims alone average $102,500 per incident.

Those are just a couple of the facts to emerge from a comprehensive study that Travelers Indemnity Co. did on more than 1.5 million injury workers comp claims over a four year period.   All in all, it is one of the most complete pictures of the causes and costs of injuries in the American workplace.

While material handling shows up as the top cause of injury for every industry and businesses of every size, there are some important distinctions for some segments.  For example, workers in small businesses suffer injuries from hand tools at about twice the rate of other sized businesses. Part of that may be improper training, but it could possibly be that small contractors on construction jobs are more likely to use hand tools.  Oil and gas was the only sector to have motor vehicle accidents in its top five causes.  Those unique aspects should guide companies in their safety programs.

days away graphicStrains and sprains were the most common type of injury, followed by cuts or punctures, contusions inflammation and fractures.  Possibly the most interesting part of the study is what injuries cost and how long they keep workers away from the job.   Travelers found that strains and sprains caused workers to miss an average of 57 days away from work, but that inflammations, which only made up five percent of the injuries, averaged more than 90 days away from work.injury costs

Finally, and most significantly, the study tackles the average costs for injury claims.  The most common injuries are not the most expensive ones.   Again, amputations are by far the most expensive claims coming in at $107,000.  That is just for the claim.  Any fines or other expenses would just add to that total.   Strains and sprains cost an average of $17,000.

What does all of this mean to a company?   Businesses should already be doing all they can to prevent injuries and help injured workers recover.   The study gives clear evidence that protecting workers is a sound financial decision in addition to being the right thing to do.  Now companies can look at hard costs of injuries and make rational decisions about where to spend their money.   For instance, following the NFPA 70E guidelines for training workers on electrical hazards can cost a few hundred dollars.  One electric shock injury costs an average of $55,200 in claims alone.  It is a  pretty easy business decision to make.

If you need help either protecting your workers from injuries or in mitigating the damage through early intervention once an incident happens, contact me at info@lifelinestrategies.com.

Bullets May Be Hazardous To Your Health, But Not For the Reasons You Think.

rifle rangeEarlier this month, OSHA cited an indoor shooting range in Pennsylvania for workplace hazards and fined the owners $135,000 dollars.  The offenses?    Four willful, eight serious, and two other-than-serious violations for exposing workers to lead and excessive noise exposure.

According to a news report, “during a sampling period on Nov. 13, OSHA said safety officers observing and instructing clients in the range area were exposed to continuous noise at 326 percent of the permissible daily noise exposure.”

Noise exposure in a shooting range is not surprising, although 326 percent of the permissible exposure threshold tend to get your attention.   But what about lead exposure?   OSHA’s testing apparently found that the staff at the range was exposed to 0.69 milligrams of inorganic lead per cubic meter of air, almost 14 times OSHA’s permissible exposure limit of 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter of air.   How does that happen?  Bullets contain lead.When a bullet hits something harder than it is – a wall or the floor – it splatters.  Lead becomes airborne.

Burning gunpowder contacting lead in the bullet also acts as a catalyst to release lead into the air.

This is not the first time OSHA has gotten involved in gun range safety. It cited two other ranges and hit them with big fines in 2012 and 2013.   In 2014, the Center for Disease Control issued a report on different studies of lead exposure at ranges.  One study cited looked at a major reconstruction of a range involving a hundred construction workers.  Nearly half of them had elevated lead levels just from the construction activity.   The report estimated that 2,056 shooting range employees or law enforcement officers (who train at ranges) had elevated blood lead levels and that another 2,673 people who do recreational target practice have elevated lead levels.   The CDC recommends that ranges switch to lead-free bullets, use wet mops to clean up and improve ventilation.  Training employees and users is also critical.

The article doesn’t mention this, but with a million or so law enforcement officers training at ranges, it may only be a matter of time before police departments face class action suits over work-related lead and noise exposure.


OSHA’s “Name and Shame” Regulations Hit The Street.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its long-awaited changes in injury reporting requirements on May 11th, saying it was going to “nudge” employers to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.   “Shove” is more like it.

Although the actual regulatory language is relatively short, there is a lot to digest there and it will take some time to fully see the impact.  However, the bottom line is that starting next year American businesses will be required to post their injuries online for the world to see.  It is a continuation of a long-held OSHA philosophy to publicly identify companies that do not provide what the agency considers to be safe workplaces.

Under the rule, all companies with 250 or more employees must post their OSHA 300 (Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses), 300A (Summary of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses), and 301 (Injury and Illness Incident Report) forms beginning in January 2017.  Companies with 20-249 employees in certain high risk industries must file the 300A summary every year, starting in 2017.    Companies with less than 10 employees are still exempt from reporting, but it gets a little bit hazy when you look at companies with 10-20 employees or industries (like oil and gas) which have been identified in the past as being special focus industries, but were not on the list.

A few other points from the rulemaking:

Post-incident drug and alcohol testing – One of the biggest questions is how the rule’s language on post injury testing will be interpreted.  OSHA plainly states: “Blanket post-injury drug testing policies deter proper reporting,”  and “drug testing policies should limit post-incident testing to situations in which employee drug use is likely to have contributed to the incident, and for which the drug test can accurately identify impairment caused by drug use.”   But what does that mean?   Does OSHA really think that post-incident drug-testing is performed to “punish” workers for getting hurt?  There is a very good overview of this aspect of the new rule by attorney Kathryn J. Russo and I would urge employers to read it.  The only thing that I would add is that the creation of a drug and alcohol-free workplace and routine testing may be the most important safety measure adopted by transportation industries.  Discouraging post-incident testing is a dangerous step backwards.

Anti-retaliation policy – The regulation includes a couple of other requirements that may have impacts that we can’t gauge for some time.  The first is an anti-retaliation policy.  Companies must inform their workers that they have a right to report work-related injuries and illnesses without retaliation. OSHA suggests employers post its “Job Safety and Health – It’s the Law” Workers’ Right Poster to help accomplish this.

Emphasis on injuries as a measure of workplace safety – Granted, it is important to capture and analyze injury data.  But frankly a lot of industries are too obsessed with boiling their safety programs down to a number that can be reported at the weekly management meeting or used by host companies to decide which contractor to use.     Accidents tell you what happened.  Hazards and near misses tell you what could happen. As company safety programs evolve, they move away from injuries and focus on hazards and near misses.

For a smaller company, one incident a year raises their magic number so high that it can disqualify them from certain jobs.  Sticking that number up for the world to see may have unintended consequences that we can hardly define at this point.

Finally, and most importantly, this new regulation underscores the importance of having strong accident prevention programs and equally strong post accident injury management programs.   Contact me if you need some help on either of those programs.

Wasps Vs. Airplane: Wasps Win

From Australia comes a story of a potential airliner crash caused by a wasps’ nest.  The plane had flown in from Singapore and was headed back on the return trip.  It was on the ground for two hours.  The first takeoff attempt had to be scrubbed because of an instrument problem.   As soon as the pilot took off on the second attempt, he radioed the tower that he needed to make an emergency landing because he had no way to measure his airspeed to know if he was going fast enough to stay in the air.

33E45C8600000578-3576429-An_Etihad_Airway_flight_was_forced_to_make_an_emergency_landing_-m-3_1462522769177Investigators traced the problem to a wasps’ hive that had formed in a piece of  equipment  known as a Pilot Probe.   Their report concludes that the wasps had built the hive in the two hours that the plane was on the ground.

What’s the lesson here?  Always recognize the potential for the unpredictable to occur.  One of the newer tools to take hold in the safety profession is “barrier management.”  It involves identifying potential hazards and focusing on the barriers that can be implemented to protect workers and sites from those hazards.   It is a valuable tool, especially because it can be quantified (“we have established 20 barriers on this operation.”) and because it ties together a lot of different safety measures into a coherent system (training, procedures, reviews, etc.).

The problem with barriers is that, when we try to make order out of what is essentially a chaotic world, we tend to convince ourselves that the world fits our orderly model.   Being able to identify known hazards and to institute protections against those hazards is a very valuable thing and that is why the barrier approach is worth doing.  But some part of us needs to always be wary of the unexpected event that is so random in nature that it will never show up in our carefully plotted barrier diagram.   There is an old Yiddish say, “Man plans and God laughs.”    A similar Scottish saying is “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Hazard analysis and barrier plans are important, but the lesson of the wasp in the airplane is that we always need to be on the lookout for the hazard we could never anticipate.

Thanks to Dennis Bryant for pointing this out on his blog.

Safety Speech: Why The First Half Hour After An Injury Is So Important.

COREHEALTHlogo (2)If you are in Houston, please come to the next STEPS meeting on Tuesday, May 17th.  We will be featured speakers talking about what you should do in the first half hour after a worker is injured on the job.   Study after study show that the actions you take right after an incident play a large role in determining whether the worker will receive the right treatment, whether the worker winds up on workers comp and how long he or she may stay off the job.   CORE Health Networks will also answer your questions on how to interpret OSHA reporting requirements from a medical professional’s standpoint.

STEPS is a national partnership between OSHA and the oil and gas industry, dedicated to sharing information and best practices on safety and occupational health.  The next Houston STEPS meeting will be held from



Groves Industrial Supply

7301 Pinemont Dr., Houston, TX 77040

owever, because we are expecting a good-sized group this month, please let me know if you are interested in coming by emailing info@lifelinestrategies.com.

Also, if you are interested in having CORE Health Networks speak to any groups that you are involved in or if you just want to discuss strategies for addressing worker injuries, contact me with that request as well.

Think Scaffolds are Dangerous? Try Working on Hong Kong’s Bamboo Scaffolding.

bambooSome jobs are just naturally scary.  Professional Bull Rider.   Alligator wrestler.  Presidential Election Pollster.  OK, that just seems scary this year.

And then there is construction work in Hong Kong. WOW!  Hong Kong is one of the last major cities to still use bamboo scaffolding on its building  projects.  Half construction workers, half circus performers, builders in Hong Kong hang from a framework of bamboo as they work, always keeping one foot wrapped around a stalk for balance.  They build the scaffold from poles as they go, tying off each piece with nylon strips.   The scaffolding may routinely rise to 50 or 60 stories.   It has been called the most dangerous construction work in the world and one study stated that Hong Kong sees about 36 fatalities a year out of every 100,000 employees, as compared to two fatalities for every 100,000 construction workers in the UK.

It is not known how many fatalities involve the crews who build the bamboo scaffolding and are highly trained, as opposed to the crews who use the scaffolding to work on the buildings.  According to one report, scaffold builders must go through a 100-day course before going out on a job.  Watching the scaffold builders work has been compared to watching a spider balance on a thin web, but see for yourself in this CNN report on the craft:

It is a nice touch that everyone has fall protection in the news report.  However, take a look at this home video someone took from their hotel room in India.   Tie off?   Not so much.

Makes you nervous even if you are working in a one story office.

Zika Virus – What You and Your Workers Need to Know Right Now.

Six months ago, none of us had ever heard of the Zika virus; now the pressure is on to find out as much as we can and take steps to protect our workers and our businesses.   Fortunately, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have released guidance that can make up the basis for a company Zika action plan.  You can and should read the document here.
To hit on some of the high points, the virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, had its first wide-spread outbreak in Brazil, but is spreading  through Central and South America, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean, including U.S. territories.  Cases have been reported in the U.S. and officials say it is a matter of when, not if, the virus is more widespread here.   There is a government website that tracks any new information on Zika. zikamain_041916_880

Employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment and that includes a responsibility to take steps to protect workers from Zika.  This means taking a combination of actions to keep work sites from becoming  breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry the virus and training or communication to make sure workers understand the risks and what they should do to protect themselves.

Here are some of the actions that OSHA recommends:

  1. Provide workers with, and encourage them to wear, clothing that covers their hands, arms, legs, and other exposed skin. Consider providing workers with hats with mosquito netting to protect the face and neck.   This can be loose-fitting clothing when work is being done in the heat.   Note: This may be considered Personal Protective Equipment and it is up for interpretation whether companies are obligated to provide specialized clothing like netting under the PPE regulations.
  2. Provide appropriate insect repellent.  The guidance explains what types may be used.
  3. Get rid of sources of standing water (e.g., tires, buckets, cans, bottles, barrels) whenever possible to reduce or eliminate mosquito breeding areas.   Note: the guidance does not talk about spraying for mosquitoes in large outdoor sites, but employers may want to consider this.
  4. If requested by a worker, consider reassigning anyone who indicates she is or may become pregnant, or who is male and has a sexual partner who is or may become pregnant, to indoor tasks to reduce their risk of mosquito bites.
  5. Train workers and communicate:
    1. The potential hazards that the Zika virus presents;
    2. The symptoms of the virus;
    3. The importance of wearing proper clothing and using repellent;
    4. The need for good housekeeping (removing trash or other potential breeding grounds;
    5. Special risks that the virus may present to pregnant women or workers who travel to known outbreak areas.
  6. Review and update your Bloodborne Pathogen policies and training to include potential exposure from mosquitoes.

A couple of side notes here – First, Zika isn’t the only disease that is carried by mosquitoes.  Policies and training that address mosquitoes will also help prevent workers from West Nile and a host of other viruses.  Second, there is a lot that we still don’t know about Zika and the information has changed several times since the first major outbreak.  For example, it was thought that only the  Aedes species mosquitoes, which also carry Yellow Fever, spread Zika.  Now scientists believe that the Asian Tiger mosquito also spreads it, greatly expanding the potential scope of outbreak areas.

Some of the steps above are only common sense.  Others may seem like overkill.   However, given the rapid spread of Zika and all of the questions surrounding its impacts, it pays to be very aggressive in protecting your workforce.


The Workplace Safety Rules Changed and Most Companies Don’t Even Know It.

OSHA ReflectionIn late March, a Houston company selling Christmas trees was hit with fines of $117,000 for OSHA violations.  The case stemmed from a worker injury in December, triggering an inspection that found more than a dozen serious violations.  The most significant thing about the case is that, prior to last year, OSHA would probably never have even inspected the location.  


At the beginning of 2015, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) launched one of the biggest changes in American safety in years and most companies don’t even know about it.  The change came in the form of a new definition for “severe injuries” under OSHA’s regulations and new reporting requirements.  Before, companies were required to report any time a worker was killed or at least three workers were hospitalized within eight hours of the accident.  However, as of January 1, 2015, employers are now required to report fatalities and any injury resulting in a hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.

One of the first businesses in the country to learn what a change that meant was a Houston-area construction company.  Less than one month after the change was instituted, a worker fell through a hole in the roof and was seriously injured on one of the company’s projects.  The details of the case caused OSHA to hit the company with a massive fine of $362,500, including $70,000 because it waited three days to report the accident.

Since then, more than 600 other companies have been fined for failing to properly report incidents, according to Bloomberg BNA.  But it is not the fines for failing to report that have made the biggest impact; it is the way the reports give OSHA an up-close, real-time view of how people get hurt on the job in America.

Now a year later, OSHA has released a report that shows just how much they have learned about on-the-job injuries.  For starters, the agency received more than 10,000 reports last year, about 30 a day.  Making matters worse, OSHA estimates that industry is under-reporting by 50 percent.

The reports that are made give OSHA two things: a big-data window into the relative safety of different industries, and a brand-new approach to inspecting and investigating individual businesses.

Big Data

The injuries included 7,636 hospitalizations and 2,644 amputations.  As one OSHA publication puts it, “statistics are people with the tears washed off.”  It is the amputation statistics that jumped out.  OSHA has been preaching to the manufacturing sector about amputation hazards for a long time.  However, amputations in grocery stores and other companies that use food slicers appear to have been an eye-opener for agency officials and they have singled that sector out with a program to raise awareness and also for stepped-up enforcement.

Grocers are one example of the way the new rule has allowed OSHA to target its limited resources.  Before, a store had relatively little chance of ever getting a visit from an OSHA inspector.   Now they are getting attention from regulators.   In March, a national grocery store chain was fined $45,500 after a worker sliced off a fingertip.   And that may be the least of that company’s worries.  As attorney Howard Mavity of Fisher & Phillips has pointed out, a second violation at any of a company’s stores in the next five years could potentially make it a repeat offender under the regulations and open the door to a $70,000 fine for each offense.

What happens when the data identifies a high number of injuries within a certain industry or area?  On March 16, after reviewing reports that indicated that meat processors in Nebraska had an injury rate well above the national average, OSHA launched a local emphasis program. The very next day, OSHA added a regional emphasis program for Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri poultry processors.  OSHA emphasis programs are part carrot, part stick approach – The carrot is a communications outreach to companies and workers. The stick is dramatically increased, targeting inspections.  In the words of the order, “Meat processing facilities will be evaluated to determine whether the employers are in compliance with all relevant OSHA requirements, to help employers come into compliance, and to ensure that employees are protected from the hazards related to animal slaughtering and processing. “

Once an industry is on the list, companies in that industry will see increased inspections, which bring the potential for new violations, the threat of becoming a repeat offender and, over time, more pressure on the agency itself to take any measures within its power to improve safety in that industry.  Suddenly companies that have flown under OSHA’s radar will get to know their regulators very well.

Company Inspections

The rules also triggered a complete change in the way OSHA handles investigations of incidents.   Most companies are still not prepared for this.  To understand the change, you must first understand that OSHA already does a lot with a very limited budget.   Once accident reports started flooding in, local offices did not have the resources to visit every accident site.

So they started a triage system.   About a third of the time, investigators went to the accident scene and performed an inspection.  About five percent of the time, they decided no investigation was required.  What about the remaining 62 percent?  For those cases, OSHA invented a new type of investigation, the Rapid Response Investigation (RRI).  Employers are asked to perform their own investigation, including a root cause analysis.  The company is told to:

  1. Analyze the incident;
  2. Identify the causes;
  3. Present its finding to OSHA, potentially including pictures and blueprints; and
  4. Propose steps it will take to keep the accident from happening again, such as training or changes to procedures.

For companies with staff who understand incident analysis and safety programs, this has not been much of a problem.   Anecdotally, company safety professionals have said OSHA was easy to work with and focused on prevention more than punishment, which should be everyone’s goal.

But smaller companies may lack that expertise and this process can be difficult and potentially expensive.  A lot of companies, especially those in low-risk industries, may go years without an incident, even though they don’t have formal programs or training in recognizing hazards.  However, if someone is hurt, they may find themselves in a kind of double jeopardy.  First they had the accident, and then they run the risk of bringing additional scrutiny by performing a haphazard investigation.  Sure enough, OSHA investigators say privately that they spend a lot of time explaining to small companies what they need to do to perform the investigation.

Finally, there is always the temptation to cheat.  As OSHA says, if there were 10,000 reports last year, there may have been 10,000 more injuries that went unreported.  Of course, lying to OSHA has always been a reckless approach that can result in criminal penalties.

Overall, OSHA is one year into an ambitious program that could dramatically improve workplace safety in America, but there are still some bumps along the way.  Companies need to understand the new paradigm, step up their safety programs and recognize that the way they investigate an accident and the steps they put in place to prevent it in the future are critical in determining how OSHA treats them in the future.

Ken Wells is the founder and president of Lifeline Strategies, consulting firm located in Houston.  Lifeline Strategies’ units work with companies to manage their safety and regulatory programs, maintain healthy workplace through occupational medicine management and establish integrated brands for their customers and the public.

And Now We Have Fighting Bulldozers.

On the streets of Houston we routinely have small altercations between wrecker crews competing to haul off cars, but we have nothing to even compare with what happened in China recently.   It seems rival excavator companies couldn’t agree on who was going to do the bulldozing, so they just fought it out on the street.  Hard to imagine how things escalated to this level:


This is not the only example of bulldozer mayhem.  This video shows what happens when there is a perfect storm of bulldozer, alcohol, crowded streets and angry mob: