The Retailer’s Guide to Handling Safety Issues in the Workplace

Failing to address reports of safety issues in the workplace ends in tragedy—and a $100K fine.

safety issues in the workplace

In the spring of 2017, a Goodwill outlet store in Sacramento failed to train workers and respond to safety hazard warnings, which resulted in the crushing death of Abraham Garza, a loading dock worker, according to California’s workplace safety agency in April.

After a six-month Cal-OSHA investigation, which included a finding that employees had allegedly warned of hazardous working conditions, the agency fined Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley and Northern Nevada $106,675.

“None of the authorized employees including [Garza] were provided training in the safe operation of the compactors at the front and back loading dock areas,” Cal-OSHA concluded in its report.

The tragic case demonstrates the importance of properly managing reports of safety issues in the workplace—and of the reach of safety enforcement agencies. It also suggests a question for loss prevention executives: what does a process that properly handles safety complaints look like?

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Managing Safety Issues in the Workplace

Employees need the forum and freedom to register health and safety complaints—it helps workers and is typically to a store’s benefit as well. If employees feel they don’t have an audience to which they can report safety concerns, they may instead turn to safety enforcement agencies.

Retailers may choose to create safety committees that can initially address employee complaints, and the efficacy of this strategy improves if members of the safety committees represent both employees and management. Employees are also more likely to turn to your company’s safety committee—rather than safety enforcement agencies—if your company:

  • Has a system for anonymously reporting concerns about safety issues in the workplace to the appropriate committee;
  • Frequently reminds employees that the safety committee wants to hear about safety issues that need attention, and
  • Reports back to employees on the actions the company takes or plans to take in response to every safety complaint—even if it is an explanation as to why it does not plan to take action.

Regardless of whether an employee goes to a supervisor or a safety committee representative to report a problem, any report of safety concerns or complaints needs to find its way into a formal investigation process. Ask yourself: What happens to a complaint after an employee makes it? Is it the same regardless of who they report it to? Is it the same regardless who makes it? Is the complaint assigned a tracking number? Who is in charge of follow-up to see that an appropriate internal investigation is conducted? Do supervisors receive instruction on what exactly to do when someone voices a safety concern? In short, retailers need to develop a system to handle all employee safety complaints.

New workers should receive instruction on your store’s process for handling workplace safety issues during safety orientation for new hires. Also, stress your company’s desire for employees to immediately report any and all safety concerns. Setting the tone for new employees in this way will go a long way in preventing an anonymous call to occupational safety agencies later on. Such calls may also be prevented if your store:

  • Includes relevant information about safety standards during employee safety training. By emphasizing how your company’s safety procedures meet applicable safety standards, companies can prevent employees from lodging complaints with safety agencies out of ignorance.
  • Has management occasionally speak about the importance of safety as a company value. Employees who think management cares about safety and wants to confront safety problems is likely to go to a supervisor or the safety committee when they notice a safety problem.

Managers play a key role in the safety complaint process. If they’re not quickly responding to safety suggestions or concerns, it’s up to corporate LP leaders to analyze the cause. Here are a few reasons why store managers may not respond to workers on safety issues:

  • No system is in place to deal with safety suggestions.
  • Managers aren’t sure of their responsibility and are unclear if it’s part of their job to encourage and address safety suggestions.
  • Managers perceive safety suggestions as just a source of more work.
  • Trying to resolve workers’ safety concerns often means having to have conflict with their peers, which they would rather avoid.
  • There are not always the resources available to address the safety issues that workers bring up.

Once corporate leaders have a good idea of what is causing managers to fall short, they can identify barriers that can be removed to set the stage for managers’ quicker response to suggestions and concerns surrounding workplace safety issues.

  • Develop an effective organization-wide system for dealing with safety suggestions.
  • Make sure managers understand that timely response to employee safety concerns is a part of their job.
  • Get senior managers to put the issue of addressing safety suggestions on the agenda for at least some meetings with managers.
  • Permit managers to identify specified times when they can meet as a group to discuss safety suggestions and how to handle them.
  • Track the time between safety suggestions and response. If managers have to track this metric, they will be more likely respond quickly—especially if their response time is a factor in performance appraisals.

This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated February 19, 2018.

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