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Executive Blog: Safety Rules, Conscientious Employees and the Future of the Workplace

May 13, 2020

Tony Anello

Chief Commercial Officer

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (more commonly referred to as OSHA) covers most private sector employers in all 50 states and was signed into law on December 29, 1970. OSHA is responsible for assuring “safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.” They accomplish this by establishing federal guidelines as well as through job safety and health programs operated by individual states. OSHA now has an entire section of its website dedicated to new COVID guidelines and how pre-existing guidelines apply to the current situation.

Do safety rules make a workplace safe?

As employers start to envision how they are going to re-open and get back on track following the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdowns, ensuring the safety of staff and customers will be more critical than ever. Safety rules will play a big part in that, but are they enough? The complex patchwork of federal and state regulations will make deciphering what needs to be in place that much more difficult, especially for employers with multiple locations across city and state lines.

Safety guidelines like these provide a framework for how businesses will need to operate in the weeks and months to come, but they can’t anticipate or prepare employers for every situation that is going to unfold. Safety guidelines alone, however, can’t be counted on to ensure that staff and customers are working, eating, or shopping in the safest environments possible. All rules and guidelines are only as effective as the managers and employees who implement them and ensure adherence to them.

There are lessons to be learned from recent history, such as the Texas City Refinery explosion in March of 2005, when a hydrocarbon vapor cloud ignited and violently exploded, killing 15 workers, injuring 180 others, and damaging the refinery. Following the explosion, former US Secretary of State James Baker III investigated the safety culture and management systems at BP North America, leading to the now widely known Baker Panel Report. Baker cited a lack of necessary preventive maintenance and training and that safety improvements between 2002 and 2005 were “largely focused on personal safety — such as slips, trips, falls, and vehicle accidents, rather than on improving safety performance.” Also, Baker conducted an employee survey across all of BP’s North American refineries and determined that the Toledo and Texas City plants had the worst process safety culture.

As most managers can tell you, getting employees to follow the rules is more complicated than merely having them want to avoid injuries. What we can learn from this is that you need the right guidelines plus the right safety culture that ensues from having the right employees in place to expect better safety results.

Conscientiousness –> Rule following –> Safety outcomes

As mentioned above, rules alone cannot account for every variable in every work environment. Businesses must hire and train the employees best suited to recognizing risk and responding appropriately and promoting the right culture of safety.

The level of “conscientiousness” will be a crucial characteristic that employers will look for when getting back to work as employees with those traits are more apt to follow the rules, which in turn should improve safety outcomes. Managers may feel like they have a good sense of which employees rate high in that area, but which ones are best? If a company has gone through any furlough or reduction in force (RIF) in recent months, the situation becomes even more complicated. Are you able to bring back all staff or just some? Do all of those staff impacted want to come back, or have they found other jobs? As companies evaluate their options, they will need to make critical decisions to ensure business continuity today and in the future.

But can you gauge the level of conscientiousness of new hires or re-hires?

The good news is that you can. Science and technology-based pre-hire assessments are a proven way to determine whether candidates likely have the right skills, attitudes, and attributes necessary to do the job well and do it safely.

If you’d like to learn more about how to pick the right candidates out of what are sure to be record-breaking applicant pools, take a look at what Modern Hire’s Assessments can do or speak with one of our in-house experts and schedule a demo.