Starting out in safety can seem daunting, particularly if you never intended to pursue it as a career. There is so much to learn about your workplace and the hazards and risks your workers face so you can help improve your safety and health program. 

Julia Kunlo, CSP, vice president of Evolution Safety Resources, is one of many people who found themselves working in safety unexpectedly, and she has learned a lot of lessons along the way. Here are five things she says will help you to get off to a good start.

1. Be a Listener First

One of the best ways to get off on the right foot is by learning from those in your organization. Everyone plays a role in making workplaces safer, and it’s critical to have everyone’s perspective about the current state of workplace safety and health and how to improve.

From senior leaders and others, you can learn about key priorities and how success will be measured. Front-line workers can offer insights into how they perform their jobs and the organization can make those jobs safer.

 “Trying to make changes before you understand the people who have been doing it for 20-30 years is going to make it an uphill battle, so talk to the people who are doing it. Listen and understand,” Kunlo explains.

Based on these conversations, Kunlo says to think about three central components when developing and improving your program:

  • Field-based: What is happening in the field? How you are identifying, mitigating and controlling risk?
  • Administrative: What are your current policies and procedures? Do you have management and leadership buy-in?
  • Cultural: Do you have the buy-in and contributions of your workforce? Is there a plan for continuous engagement? Do they see the value of the safety and health program?

“When these three building blocks work together, you start to get something really powerful,” she says.

Kunlo adds that if everyone is involved in conversations about safety from the beginning, it will be easier working together to improve.

2. Learn the Risks and Hazards

Perhaps your most important job is assessing and managing risks. To do that, get out in the field and talk to workers about their jobs and the hazards and risks they encounter.  

“If you ask somebody how they’re doing their job, what they think the risks are or what they think you should be focusing on, 90% of the time people are willing to help you and explain what they do and why they do it,” she says.

Asking workers about the biggest risks associated with their jobs offers powerful insights on where you need to concentrate your efforts to make the workplace safer.

“You just don’t make the right choices when you have a theoretical knowledge,” Kunlo explains. “If you’re going to be making policies and procedures and telling people how to do their job, first you have to know how to do the job.”

Once you’ve had these conversations and identified hazards and risks, you can begin to establish your priorities based on what poses the greatest risk to your workers.

3. Get to Know the Standards

After you have a handle on the risks and hazards on your worksites, OSHA regulations and voluntary consensus standards offer guidance on addressing them. OSHA 1910 regulations apply to general industry, while 1926 regulations are specific to the construction industry. Referencing these standards can help you learn which regulations apply to your workplace and what you need to do to comply.

To go beyond OSHA compliance, which is a critical step in advancing safety and health,  reference standards such as ANSI/ASSP Z10 or ISO 45001. These consensus documents have additional guidance on how to develop and continuously improve your occupational safety and health management system.

“The first thing is to decide what you are going to build your program around,” Kunlo says. “Do your research and decide what safety management system framework you like, and then audit your program to that system.”

4. Understand the Culture

Along with understanding risks and regulatory requirements, you also need to gauge the culture of your organization and its attitudes about safety. Kunlo says you have to be careful when it comes to the pace of culture change and the impact it can have your entire program.

“Every culture is this unique, fragile entity, and one of the worst things you can do if you’re trying to improve culture is to step into a new position and immediately try to change it in some way,” she says. “You have to be a listener first and understand where you are so you make good, strategic choices.”

Kunlo encourages the use of perception surveys to identify areas for improvement. These could be online or paper surveys that workers fill out at home and bring back to work.

She adds that one negative, stereotypical perception you may encounter is that of the “safety cop,” the idea that safety practitioners are only interested in enforcing the rules — in other words, telling everyone what to do.

“Nobody likes to be bossed around all the time, and this ‘safety cop’ mentality unfortunately comes from a real place,” she says. “Part of the role is addressing that misconception and getting people involved by hearing their ideas and letting them come up with their own solutions.”

5. Strive for Progress, Not Perfection

It’s important to remember that while you may want to eliminate all the hazards and risks at your work site, striving for perfection could have the opposite effect. Instead, focus on continuous improvement. Develop an ongoing training program to educate your workforce as hazards and risks change.

“Training is one of those components of a program that’s always changing because risks change when new equipment and processes get involved and standards change, so it should always be something that we’re looking at and evaluating,” Kunlo says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all, and we want to look for progress, not perfection.”

To be effective, training sessions must be dynamic experiences, leaving plenty of time for questions, suggestions and discussion.

“Committees, meetings, engagement and toolbox talks shouldn’t be a piece of paper that the supervisor reads off and passes around for everybody to sign,” she says. “A different person should be doing it every week and they should be choosing the topic based on what they think is important. Everyone should have a chance to give input and to lead.”


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