With billions lost and lives shaken by workplace injuries, safety is more than a priority

Seminars, training videos and signage are fine. But when it comes to workplace safety — especially in a town like Las Vegas, with its blistering temperatures, 24-hour lifestyle and according tendency toward sleep deprivation — companies would do well to make it an indelible part of their culture. Workplace accidents that caused employees to miss six or more days of work cost U.S. employers nearly $62 billion in 2013 (the most recent year for which valid injury data are available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Academy of Social Insurance), according to the 2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index. The top 10 causes of disabling work-related injuries account for more than $51 billion of that figure, and include repetitive motion, falls and overexertion.

Las Vegas has seen deaths result from the breakdown of safety protocols, notably in a stretch between 2007 and 2008 when construction workers were dying at a rate of one every six weeks — 12 deaths in 18 months. An investigation by the Las Vegas Sun revealed that poor safety practices and lax government oversight played significant roles.

Creating a culture of safety would seem a priority local businesses cannot afford to ignore.

Core Value

Two years ago, the city of Henderson focused on creating a safety culture by identifying safety as a core value “rather than as a priority, as is common in other organizations,” said Ryan Turner, the city’s head of emergency management and safety. “A value is a principle or belief that frames decisions and sets standards for behavior, whereas a priority can be changeable and often open to interpretation given other influences.”

Turner’s team, he said, “likes to ‘start with the why’ — not what we do or how we do it, but why we do it. Why is safety a value? Because our people matter most and we don’t want them to get hurt. We have found this approach to be much more intuitive than simply supplying our folks with a list of safety rules to follow.”

Leading by example is key for Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Las Vegas general-contracting firm Burke Construction Group. But accidents still happen, given common safety challenges such as fall protection and maintaining a clean work space. “Everyone is moving quickly on project sites, and the injuries we see are happening because someone didn’t take an extra five minutes to set protective measures for a slip or fall. There also are issues with egress due to cluttered spaces,” Burke said.

So his company sets the precedent with subcontractors, “from pre-construction through project completion, that there is a zero-tolerance policy in effect for negligence.”

Leon Mead II, a partner in the Las Vegas office of law firm Snell & Wilmer, said it was not uncommon for construction contracts to include extensive safety provisions outlining responsibility and risk management among the various parties. Risks include weather conditions and long hours “as well as the availability of illicit drugs and even legal marijuana use. Random drug testing is standard for most construction companies.”

In Las Vegas, weather is a major risk. Ensuring that workers have “adequate supplies of fresh water on-site (and) begin work early in the morning so the work day can end before the hottest part of the afternoon are all options for dealing with the heat and dryness of the Las Vegas climate,” Mead said, adding that overnight shifts are employed where possible. “But that raises its own set of safety issues; fatigue, available adequate light and visibility of workers to third parties such as drivers on highways during night construction can all cause additional safety issues.”

It’s easy for employees to understand the need for prudence when it comes to immediate physical risk.

But, says Kimberly Miles, president of TPC/HR Payroll Consultants, “emotional safety is just as significant. It is so important to make sure respect flows among everyone, as sexual assault, bullying, age and gender exclusion are safety hazards that will not be tolerated.”

Miles said each case should be addressed individually, “as we are dealing with individuals who experience, see and hear things differently. Every employee deserves to be heard. Understanding, developing and implementing a safe, healthy and respectful work environment creates and instills healthy work relationships, partnerships and families, and flows into the community. It is imperative to create an emotionally safe environment surrounded by respect, communication and positive teamwork.”

Broad Spectrum

Henderson has many employee types, safety manager Turner explained, such as office personnel and field workers. “But one injury that is common across all types is muscle strain. We recently implemented an occupational readiness (stretch and flex) program citywide that can be tailored by job description.”

Heat remains the greatest challenge. Some departments have procedures for halting outdoor tasks when the temperature reaches a certain level. “We also provide recovery tools such as cooling towels and vests,” Turner said. Finally, staffers are required to train to recognize and respond to the symptoms of heat stress.

Henderson’s safety culture was recently recognized with the National Safety Council’s 2016 Occupational Excellence Achievement Award for citywide efforts to reduce the number of workplace injuries. The city is below the national average. Says Turner, “Every employee in our organization plays a role in keeping each other safe, and it all goes back to safety as a core value.”

Empowering employees to take ownership of workplace safety and quality means “defining your culture early,” Burke says, and ensuring it promotes safety by:

• Keeping employees informed about matters affecting them

• Ensuring that information needed to do their jobs is readily available

• Providing clear expectations of each employee

• Staying informed about company values

• Including employees in reviews of company plans

• Ensuring they understand how their division’s objectives fit into corporate goals

By adopting such a proactive approach and providing continuous reinforcement, Burke says, the “simple, everyday, common-sense” items become the least worrisome. He reiterated that the key was to set the precedent early. “Don’t criticize someone; educate him on the potential issues his approach could create. Alcohol is not such a culprit anymore as it once was (on construction sites). The trouble now is with folks on prescription medication that may have an addiction.”

Construction and Regulation

Given the high-risk environment of construction sites, Mead said, “worker safety is regulated at both a state and federal level through OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which investigates work sites and can issue substantial fines for safety violations.”

The spate of deaths at Las Vegas sites in 2007 and 2008 was a wake-up call for regulators, and “Nevada OSHA currently participates in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Local Emphasis Program for Programmed Construction Inspections,” Chief Administrative Officer Jess Lankford said of enforcement strategies tailored to area-specific hazards. “Another component of workplace safety is educating employers before illness or injury occurs. The Safety Consultation and Training Section last year conducted about 800 construction-related consultations to help employers identify and correct potential hazards and safety concerns. These proactive measures undoubtedly have led to safer working conditions for construction employees.”

Mead says construction companies usually conduct staff safety meetings monthly or even weekly. On job sites, mandatory safety meetings are sometimes held daily. Workers are required to present OSHA certifications or attend on-site safety training classes as a prerequisite to obtaining access to the job site. Larger projects may even have designated safety officers whose sole responsibility is safety training and work-site inspection.

“Some companies,” Mead said, “hire experienced third-party safety inspection companies to perform safety audits of work sites based on OSHA inspection criteria and rate the sites in the same fashion as OSHA would. ... This ensures workers are focused on job safety as part of their jobs.”

That’s the goal across all industries, to make safety a foundational element of work. Meeting high standards might win you a commendation, but it really is its own reward.