I have a beautiful and caring better half. She is always there for me. One of the things she does for me is make breakfast. Now, I am an old country boy, so any old breakfast won’t do. I want meat, eggs, potatoes and toast, and she is happy to prepare them for me.
One morning as I sat down for the breakfast she had prepared, I looked at my plate and right on top was the toast … and it was burnt. Now, I do not like my toast burnt. How dare she, after all these years, try to feed me burnt toast? So, what did I do? I grabbed the jam and smiled, I thanked my better half for my breakfast, and I ate the burnt toast.
After breakfast that day, I got up from the table and left for work. While I was driving, I could not help but think that my burnt toast was somewhat symbolic of our employee safety programs and the behavior and culture of our employees.
A Funny Thing About Culture
There is a funny thing about culture: it’s 24/7, not just something that occurs during working hours. By that I mean our true, personal culture starts and ends at home, and we carry those behaviors with us to work. We are, after all, off the job and at home more hours of each day.
On the job, we all have company safety rules, standard operating procedures and work methods to adhere to that are designed to keep employees safe. Despite all these directives, however, our safety culture is not what we want it to be. For example, we have all heard our employees say something like, “Safe behavior takes too much time,” or “We have always done this task this way,” or “I don’t have the right tool, so I will improvise.” In other words, we are all willing to accept burnt toast. And then we justify our burnt toast by saying to ourselves, “I have too much to do to focus on employee safety,” or “There are too many rules,” or “We need to hurry to get this done so we can go home or on vacation.”
Mowing the Lawn
Let’s explore an example of our willingness to accept burnt toast: mowing the lawn. If you asked an employee to mow the lawn at work, here is what you likely would expect. First, OSHA says that we must do a hazard analysis and then train on the hazards and hazard abatement. So, we would get the owner’s manual, make a list of hazards and hazard abatement techniques, and train the employee on how to run the mower, its hazards and our hazard abatement plan. Then we would issue them PPE like hearing, eye, hand, arm, leg and foot protection. We also would issue a spill kit in case of oil or gas spillage, as well as remind the employee to take regular breaks and watch for heat exhaustion.
But when we mow the grass at home or assign one of our children to do the task, it is done without ever going through the hazards. The task is performed in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops with a favorite beverage in hand. Am I right? We accept the burnt toast when it is at home, not to mention that we are enabling other family members to accept the burnt toast as normal and endorsed by us.
Minimum Approach and Working Position
Here’s another example of our willingness to accept burnt toast – this time on the job. OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(l)(3)(i) states the following: “The employer shall establish minimum approach distances no less than the distances computed by Table R-3 for AC systems …” Using Table R-3, we can assume that a worker cannot approach an energized part in an average distribution system closer than 2 feet 2 inches without some protection, such as gloves and sleeves. In addition, per 1910.269(l)(5)(i), the employer “shall ensure that each employee, to the extent that other safety-related conditions at the worksite permit, works in a position from which a slip or shock will not bring the employee’s body into contact with exposed, uninsulated parts energized at a potential different from the employee’s.”
I was taught that I should always work overhead energized conductors and other parts from a position below the conductors and parts while wearing gloves and sleeves. This allows for compliance with both standards referenced above. However, I routinely see workers working energized distribution systems out of the bucket with their hands and arms right in front of their chests. This work method is a violation of minimum approach distance and work position rules, and it is inherently unsafe. And yet we continue to eat – and enable our workers to eat – this burnt toast.
All of this brings us to what we can do to cure “Burnt Toast Syndrome.” First, we must acknowledge that we don’t really mind the burnt toast while also realizing we should not accept it anymore. After all, it represents a culture that accepts unsafe behaviors and conditions, and in the long run, that could lead to a catastrophe. Once we’ve made that acknowledgement, here are five actions we can take to help rid our safety culture of Burnt Toast Syndrome.
1. Be the change.
This starts at home. When you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say out loud to yourself, “I don’t like burnt toast and I am going to be the change agent. It starts right now, and I am committed to being an example of change at home and in my workplace.” Repeat this each and every morning.
2. Lead actively.
Whether you are at home or work, you are a leader, and leaders need to lead actively. The best way to lead is by example. We all know that our kids and co-workers look up to us. If we accept the burnt toast in our lives, they will, too. As leaders, we enable behaviors and actions according to how we lead.
3. Always choose the safest way to perform a task.
There are various ways to accomplish the tasks we perform. If we consciously take time to figure out the safest way to complete each task, discuss that method with all who are involved and mentor others to perform the task in the safest way possible, we will progress to the point that we will not accept burnt toast anymore. We will all be working in a way that prevents incidents and injuries.
4. Keep your head in the game.
Have you ever left work after a long day, gotten in your vehicle and, next thing you know, you are sitting in your driveway? You don’t remember the stop signs, the stoplights, or the left and right turns you made, let alone the other cars that were on the roadway. Scary, right? Burnt toast is sneaky like that. If we don’t keep our minds engaged with what our hands and bodies are doing as much as possible, we might just have a regular diet of burnt toast.
5. Start with the little things.
We need to acknowledge that burnt toast is just a little thing, but as we know, if we do not take care of the little things, big things can happen. If left unchecked, burnt toast could grow into an unruly and uncontrollable culture that will adversely affect our lives and those of our co-workers, family members and friends.
The End Goal
All of us – as leaders, fathers, mothers, friends and co-workers – need to communicate to everyone we know that burnt toast will not be accepted anymore, and the expectation is that everyone needs to recognize unsafe conditions and behaviors and remediate them.
Life will continue to hand us burnt toast, and that is alright. However, we cannot just smile, accept it and say, “Pass the jam.” To have a true and meaningful safety culture, we must step up and refuse anything less than safe conditions and behavior in our homes and workplaces.
Now, of course, I am never going to criticize my beloved if she burns my toast, but we can’t ignore less than our best in the workplace. It’s OK to overlook simple shortcomings at home to preserve the union and a comfortable place to sleep. But not expecting and ensuring that everything is right in the workplace does not preserve safety. Eventually, covering workplace shortcomings with sweeteners will come back to hurt you or a co-worker.
About the Author: Mack Turner, CUSP, is the executive director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (www.ispconline.com). His career has spanned over 25 years in electric, gas and communications utilities. Turner also is a founding member and past board chairman of the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network (https://usoln.org).
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