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Invest in Safety – You Can’t Afford Not To

The fact that you are reading this Tailgate Topic indicates that you probably spend considerable energy working to keep yourself and others safe. And all of us together, as an industry, dedicate vast sums of money and countless hours to this cause. Is it worth it?

While many metrics have been developed to measure safety results, it is nearly impossible to prove a negative – that something could or would have happened but didn’t. We cannot state with certainty that a particular lineworker would have been badly burned had that extra piece of line hose not been installed at the insistence of the foreman who just attended a seminar on cover-up.

Perhaps the return on the cost of safety, then, can best be determined by examining the cost of ignoring it. For this, we can look to empirical data as well as the human costs associated with traumatic workplace injuries.

There are costs associated with failure to comply with the rules and regulations OSHA and other regulatory agencies have put in place to protect workers. Penalties for each OSHA violation can exceed $13,000, and multiple or repeat violations can bring fines into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There can also be intangible costs associated with violations. Companies often avoid doing business with contractors that have a documented poor safety record. This can cost these contractors millions in lost opportunities. Additionally, the most highly skilled craftspeople often will avoid working for these companies, making it difficult to attract and retain qualified workers. And further, utilities that demonstrate poor safety performance can expect negative attention from regulatory agencies and face greater scrutiny during rate cases.

Spend the Time Needed for Safety
The time spent on tailboards, training, safety meetings and more involved job-site setup ultimately will improve crew safety and productivity, in large part by helping to prevent worker injuries. According to the National Safety Council, over 100 million production days were lost in 2017 due to work-related injuries. In addition to the monetary cost, consider the impact that the loss of resources has on improving infrastructure, energizing new customers and restoring power. Workplace accidents often result in job delays, damage to equipment, interruption of service, and many hours spent by key personnel responding to and following up on these incidents.

Medical costs, workers’ compensation awards, insurance premium increases and litigation fees can be significant in cases of serious workplace injuries. According to National Council on Compensation Insurance, the average workers’ compensation claim in 2016 and 2017 ranged from $40,000 to $78,000, depending on incident type. And according to the Insurance Information Institute, insurance providers factor in an experience rating that can significantly increase or reduce premiums based on the insured company’s frequency of injury claims. It is interesting to note that this is based on frequency rather than severity of incidents; that’s because the insurance industry operates under the maxim that frequency breeds severity. This idea should be incorporated into everyone’s safety culture. And keep in mind that while workers’ compensation typically is the only recourse for an individual who is injured at work, attorneys often can find ways to work around that to increase awards for their clients.

The Human Cost
As you can see, the monetary and production costs of workplace injuries certainly are significant, but it is the human cost that is the greatest. Injured workers often suffer physical and emotional damage that they can carry throughout their lives. Injuries can result in physical restrictions that may temporarily or permanently prevent individuals from performing their chosen work. Not only can this result in financial loss due to reduced pay or loss of overtime opportunities, but there can be a loss of job satisfaction and self-worth as well.

The injury is also likely to impact life off the job. An injured worker may no longer be able to participate in their favorite activities or even perform simple tasks at home. Chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder can be significant and last long after an injury has occurred. Both have been known to lead to mental health and substance abuse issues, including misuse of alcohol and opioids. These terrible impacts are not limited to the injured person either; they can extend to family members, friends and co-workers. Feelings of guilt and resentment following an incident can poison a crew, a department or even an entire organization, greatly impacting morale, productivity and ultimately the success of the company.

We should not be discouraged by this sobering exploration of the various costs of workplace injuries. Rather, it should be a catalyst to refocus and re-energize our safety efforts. Some of the best safety cultures in our industry were born of tragedy. Of course, it should not take a serious injury or fatality to justify the adequate allocation of resources to safety. We must invest in safety because we truly can’t afford not to.

About the Author: Bob Dunderdale, CUSP, serves as a line foreman for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. in New York.

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