I was recently consulting with a client’s safety committee about updating their safety handbook and standard operating procedures. During a discussion of work positioning and work methods, it was discovered that their policies were in violation of OSHA’s minimum approach distance rules. Their initial response was, “Well, we’ve always worked that way, and so do our contractors.” I’ve seen and heard that before out on the plains of my home state. I call it “Sheepeople Syndrome." It doesn’t matter how it started; what matters is that, at some point, everyone began following along without checking the rules or asking questions – like sheep. The danger is that the evolution and acceptance of the procedure, no matter how innocently it came about, did not make those actions right or safe.
MAD works to protect employees. MAD policies have evolved with the hazards of higher-voltage live work and take into account minimum air insulation distance, worst-case circuit conditions, framing configurations, accepted work methods and human error. Both MAD and the associated work rules also are the law. If that doesn’t convince you, then how about this: There have been far too many electrical contacts in our industry, but none of them were caused by proper cover-up and MAD rules.
The fact that Sheepeople Syndrome exists likely isn’t new or shocking information to regular readers of Incident Prevention. But the question is, what can we do – starting today – to correct our course and send sheepeople behavior out to pasture?
Here are four actions to consider.
Action 1: Review your work methods and safe operating procedures. Make sure they incorporate the most up-to-date safety best practices and procedures. If you don’t have the capacity to do this work in-house, reach out to a reputable consultant or other third party for help.
Action 2: Train all affected employees on the company’s work methods and safety best practices. When training, be sure to pay attention to the details. After all of the work methods and safety procedures have been covered, make sure each trainee’s questions are answered and then confirm their understanding. Provide your employees all the information they need to know to do their jobs safely – including not only the what and the how but also why those methods, procedures and rules are in place.
Action 3: Every single level of management within the company needs to set the expectation that all work methods and safety procedures must be followed. That means both talking the talk and walking the walk. If you want others to do the right, safe thing, it is your duty to lead by example.
Action 4: Observe. Make leadership available to perform on-site observations of employee work methods. One of the benefits of having leadership available on the job site is that they can answer any questions that employees may have and reinforce the ideal safety culture everyone in the company should be striving toward.
In summary, we – as an industry – need to stop accepting Sheepeople Syndrome on our work sites. We must always take a stand against an unsafe status quo. Each of us has the responsibility and the opportunity to improve the health and safety of our workers and co-workers.