The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires employees to use personal protective equipment (PPE) when it is the best means to reduce risk of injury or harm. And yet, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that, when an on-the-job injury does occur, in the vast majority of cases the appropriate PPE was not being worn.
So why do workers skip the personal protective equipment? For that matter, why would they skip safety equipment at all? A company that figures out that puzzle can easily meet OSHA compliance and save a ton in worker’s comp—not to mention keep their employees safe and productive.
There have been many studies about safety equipment use; there are almost as many different theories as to why employees skip the safety equipment. But none of them seems to provide the whole picture. Here are some commonly cited ones:
- Employees feel that PPE and other safety equipment interferes with their work.
- Employees find PPE bulky and uncomfortable.
- There isn’t a “safety culture” among the more experienced workers, so newer works skip the safety equipment to “fit in.”
- PPE and other safety equipment does not seem “cool” or “macho.”
- It’s a hassle to use safety equipment; so, in the rush to be more productive, employees cut corners.
- Employees don’t know that it is required.
At first glance, these all seem to be different possible causes of non-compliance. But if you look carefully, there is a common thread that subtly encourages employees to pass on PPE and other kinds of safety equipment:
Safety Equipment is Seen as “One More Piece of Corporate Bureaucracy”
Some companies issue safety equipment, and some have lockers or storerooms where employees can go and get what they need. Either way, most companies simply hand over the equipment—if employees are trained with it at all, they are only trained on its use.
So when an employee is first introduced to the safety equipment—the very equipment that can prevent injury and save their life—it just seems like one more “hoop” for them to jump through while doing their daily job.It has the same status as filling out reports or taking inventory: something the administration asks you to do, but that isn’t “really” necessary for the job.
(Companies, for their part, often take the same attitude. For them, safety equipment is another box to check off for OSHA compliance. It’s government bureaucracy, not profit growing.)
That’s why employees feel that safety equipment, especially PPE, “interferes with their work” and is a corner they can cut to be productive. It’s also why a safety culture never takes root. And, if any of your workers are a little suspicious of authority, those are precisely the ones who will not use the equipment, thinking that it’s not “macho.”
This attitude also explains why one study found that 69% of respondents said that workers who did not comply thought that personal protection equipment was not required.
Training is Needed to Encourage the Use of PPE
So figuring out the puzzle of why workers don’t use PPE and other safety equipment is half the battle. What can a company do about it?
Notice that the problem is not with the equipment being bulky or uncomfortable. Nor is the problem with production schedules. Nor with employees just being careless. The issue is that employees have a certain attitude. And that attitude is often felt at the top, too.
So employees need attitude change. And the best way to achieve attitude change is through the right kinds of training. As one safety management consultant puts it, “There’s no such thing as common-sense safety, because your common sense is not the same as the next guy’s. You have to train for the behavior you want to see.”
In particular, attitudes are formed from what an employee sees, thinks, and feels:
- Post reminders to use safety equipment in the places where that equipment is required.
- Whenever you have a poster or use a training video, make sure the people on it are using appropriate safety equipment.
- Also have your managers and more veteran employees set a good example.
- Emphasize that safety procedures are a part of your employees’ jobs.
- Explain how safety is in their best interest to avoid painful injury or death.
- Explain that it is yet another way that your company ensures smooth operations.
- Put safety equipment in an easy-to-access location so it does not feel like a hassle or an afterthought.
- Having managers (and, if you can, peers) recognize when proper safety equipment is being used. Praise can be a powerful motivator.
- Share stories about the consequences of failing to use safety equipment. (No need to be gruesome—but a detailed story can change attitudes quickly!)