As sweet as honey
Making safety the easy choice means making it as easy as possible for employees to follow the correct procedures – and giving greater consideration to the risk than the reward
Some months ago, I watched a documentary on the age-old tradition of collecting honeycomb from the cliffs in Nepal. For centuries, local communities have climbed bamboo rope ladders, hanging hundreds of meters above the ground off sheer cliff faces, in search of the coveted honey from the hives of the largest bees in the world – the giant honeybees of the Himalayas.
Those harvesting the honey face the risk of falling from their self-made bamboo rope ladders to certain death below. They wear no form of fall-arrest equipment or protective clothing to guard against the inevitable bee stings from the agitated bees as they cut the hives from the cliff faces.
In addition to the many domestic uses (including medicinal), the honey from the Nepalese cliffs is sold in the Asian markets at higher prices than traditional honey from the Himalayas. Sourcing this lucrative product drives the local communities to continue taking the risk to bring in much-needed revenue for their families, despite the potential of falling from heights with guaranteed fatal consequences.
Does the end always justify the means?
As a safety professional, it was hard for me to watch … community members harvesting honey while swinging in mid-air from ladders with no fall-arrest equipment, stepping off onto cliff ledges while holding on by their fingertips of one hand, and cutting the hives away from the cliff face with the other hand. It was worse than watching a thriller!
This documentary reminded me that people will often convince themselves that the end (in this case, revenue from the honey) justifies the means (high-risk harvesting). They will take risks to secure their job, or to get the job done as quickly as possible, despite the potentially life-altering, or even fatal, consequences.
It’s up to leaders to ensure that safety is the easy option for employees and contractors.
Poor choices in exchange for safety
What employees and contractors are convinced of is the personal financial benefit, and getting the job done. They can at times also (and sadly) guarantee the respect of their colleagues and even their leaders, for saving time and keeping the production lines running.
These tendencies are all the more prevalent in geographies where there are high rates of unemployment. People feel insecure in these work environments and are more likely to do what they believe is necessary to retain their jobs, regardless of potential impacts on their safety.
The reality is that nobody works unsafely with the objective of getting injured. Instead, people make choices and conduct work in an unsafe manner for reasons that they believe justify the means. Some examples of the poor choices made, in exchange for safety, include:
• Speed: Employees take risks so that they can complete a task as fast as possible with the least effort.
• Profits: They conduct adjustments, repairs or cleaning activities on running equipment, failing to isolate and lock out equipment prior to entering. This allows the business to keep the machine(s) running and avoids maintenance requirements having a negative impact on production targets.
• Spreadsheets: Maintenance work is sometimes not conducted in strict accordance to the charts. When the maintenance completion dates reflected on the spreadsheet get ever closer, teams will do whatever is required to get the work done on time, even if it means taking shortcuts and contravening the safety rules.
• Bureaucracy: Permit to work and risk-assessment systems are too complicated and bureaucratic, making it almost impossible to meet all the requirements. For example, having too few people available to conduct joint site visits with those who provide permits often results in teams deciding to skip the joint site visits, which would enable them to ensure all necessary controls are in place.
• Logistics: Isolation and lock-out switches and equipment are located far from the machinery where the maintenance, cleaning or repair work is being done. In these instances, the duration of the task itself is quicker than the time it takes to walk to the electrical sub-station to conduct the isolation and lock out. As a result, the work is often done without following the isolation and lock-out procedures.
Ensuring safety is the easy choice
To provide a safe and healthy working environment, leaders need to ensure that safety is the easy choice, every time. Leaders need to provide the necessary training, easy-to-use systems, as well as tools and equipment that employees can understand. They should be able to adhere to the rules and procedures with ease.
Engaging the relevant people when developing these procedures, standards and requirements is key to ensuring buy-in from employees and ultimately ensuring their safety. Involving the relevant people helps to ensure that the requirements are practical and can be adhered to with ease. When procedures are complicated and/or impractical, safety isn’t the easy choice.
Personal protective clothing should be comfortable, and the equipment and tools easy and convenient to use. Again, it makes sense to involve the relevant employees when deciding on the most suitable clothing and equipment. If the clothing isn’t comfortable and the equipment and tools are not convenient or easy to use, safety, once again, isn’t the easy choice.
Ensure the required tools and equipment are available for the tasks to be conducted and preferably as close to the working areas as possible. Should an employee realise that he or she needs additional tools for a job that are not available, he/she may use another tool (or object) that is not suitable for the task.
Place local isolation points at the equipment making it possible for the employees to conduct the isolation and lock out with ease prior to commencing the task.
Leaders and safety professionals can’t assume that employees will always choose safety. Just as with the Nepalese honey thieves, employees often choose at-risk behaviour because the risk is not a sufficient deterrent and safety is not the easier choice.
Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Brian started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, Brian transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.