How much injury risk is acceptable? One could argue that question one of the “Key” questions a company needs to answer and define. One of the results from ergonomic risk assessments should be the risk level of injury. This could be for a single for a position, for specific job(s) that is required of that position or for a combination of position in the case of job rotation/cross training. The risk level rating that I use classifies risk from none, low, moderate or high. The question at the end of an assessment that must be answered assuming the risk is greater than low to none is, “How much risk is acceptable?” Unfortunately, there is no clear cut answer. The answer depends on many factors. Some of these include but are not limited to:
· Type of job
· Worker(s) involved (number, various characteristics, etc.)
· History of injuries or near misses for that position
· Financial outlays for worker injuries
· Labor rules
· Financial outlays for reducing the risk level
· ROI for reducing vs. keeping current risk levels
· Culture of the company
Based upon my experience and that of talking to other colleagues, the two factors that influence the tolerance level for injury risk are the culture and ROI.
The risk tolerance for companies whose culture is firmly rooted in valuing their employees is often times much lower than those who strictly look at the bottom line. When the morale/engagement, safety, and health/wellness of employees are embraced by top management it shows up in the environment and design of the work place. When top management looks primarily at the bottom line and pays little attention to the issues previously mentioned it also shows up in the environment and design of the work place—negatively. Research by Gallop and others has shown time and again that employees who are engaged at work are more productive. It also has been shown that employees who are safe and feel comfortable (little strains, aches and pains) are also more productive. Therefore the company whose culture and vision includes the well-being of their employees will most likely have a lower risk tolerance for injury compared to those who do not. Their goal may be to have no high risk factors on all positions or if they can’t be eliminated they will implement other methods that will control the exposure to those risk factors.
Companies whose top management and therefore culture, place lower value on their employees will be exhibited through low employee morale, higher than average employee turnover (although less so lately given the economic conditions) and higher injury rates. The work environment (physical as well as social) will be focused squarely on production. The company may “talk” safety but rarely, if ever “walk” safety. It’s not that management doesn’t care at all about their workers; they just don’t see the relationship between engaged, safe and healthy workers significantly impacting production and the bottom line. In this culture, the tolerance for injury risk most likely will be higher compared to the “employee focused” culture.
One can’t escape the reality that any changes to the work or workplace must make financial cents and business sense. The expectation of the amount or the time before ROI is realized varies from company to company. Some companies’ timeline expectation for ROI may be one year, two years or longer. Obviously, when a position or task has been determined at high risk for injury and that corresponds to the injury record and money spent for workers’ compensation then the ROI should be much more compelling compared to a task that is identified as high risk without the corroborating data.
The acceptance of workplace changes for reducing risk is most challenging when the ROI for tangible results aren’t compelling (i.e. ROI > 2 years) but the “intangible” results are significant. “Intangibles” can include increased employee morale, satisfaction and comfort. I would like to add in that other “intangible” benefits, depending on the job can result in better quality and customer satisfaction. These “intangibles” really aren’t intangible and in fact a dollar amount can be found and assigned to them, it just isn’t as easily done compared to tangible items. It’s been my experience that when the ROI case isn’t perfectly clear that the decision to proceed falls back to the company’s culture.
Acceptable Risk Level?
It would be great if I could say in absolute terms that every high risk must be eliminated; however, that’s not always realistic or possible. There will always be some positions, tasks or conditions in which the risk level can’t be lowered, i.e. the arborist who has to manually climb and prune trees in which a bucket truck or crane can’t be used. If the tasks or conditions that produce the high risk are relatively infrequent or if the worker has plenty of rest time to recover from that high risk task, then the impetus or need to make changes is reduced. However, if that position, task or condition is frequent to constant then coming up with a solution for change should be a priority.
Of course, there are always caveats. For example, I was once asked what would I recommend when a company has high risk tasks with corresponding injury data and costs that nearly every non-management worker or position in the entire company performs? Well, of course the answer depends…but the choices are the following:
1. Do nothing. Status quo. A company can decide that they accept the high risk level for injury and the injuries and costs that go along with it. This is probably the least expensive in the short term but the most expensive in the long term.
2. Limit/control exposure. Train/”fix” the human. This is where no real changes are done to how the work is done. This is administrative changes, i.e. more rest breaks, shorter shifts, more people assigned to the job, etc. or employee/PPE changes (stretching, strengthening, etc.) (The pros/cons of doing this option would be an article in and of itself.)
3. Redesign. Complete overhaul. A company can decide that the high risk level is not acceptable and the costs/benefits of administrative changes are not worth it. This is probably the most expensive solution in the short term but also the most sustainable, effective and profitable in the long term.
4. Combination of 2 & 3.
Of course, those same four choices are the same regardless of the company’s employee/position situation. A company always can decide to do nothing, something or everything. I’ve seen all versions of the above decisions with varying results that can be summed up by the cliché “the good, the bad, and the ugly”.
In the end, if every job had zero risk factors whether for injury or errors, then this question would never come up. There would be no need for incident investigations, ergonomic/human factors assessments, root cause analysis, process improvement, work changes, etc. However, we are all human and have limitations and abilities, despite the advances of machines and technologies.
I will leave you with this last thought. Productivity is best realized and optimized through good design of the work, work environment, tools and equipment that fit the humans. I call this Productivity Through Design™. Through good design, the risk factors can and should be kept to a minimum number and level. Given that, I believe it is the responsibility and in the best interest of the company and the workers to realize it is in their best to optimize the work as it will serve to benefit both the company and workers alike.
Schaufeli, W.B., Bakker, A.B. & Salanova, M. 2006, "The Measurement of Work Engagement With a Short Questionnaire", Educational and Psychological Measurement, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 701-716.