Workplace safety: You can’t predict the future, but you can prepare for it

By Carolyn Heinze

Developing safety protocol is kind of like predicting the future: with all the variables that can contribute to a potential accident (or “incident” depending on your preference), where does one begin? And, once an accident does occur, how should organizations go about preventing the same thing from happening again while tending to the needs of any injured employees?

Gary Chambers, MS, CIH, is a certified industrial hygienist based in Studio City, Calif. and the author of Concise Guide to Workplace Safety and Health: What You Need to Know, When You Need It. With more than 25 years of experience counseling organizations in both the public and private sectors on occupational safety and health, he offers the following nuts-and-bolts advice to safety-conscious distributors.

Q: What factors go into identifying potential workplace hazards?

GC: One of the factors is: Do you even know what to look for? There are resources out there that can help you with this. The federal governments in both the United States and Canada have fantastic resources online ( and Many states and provinces also provide useful information or even on-site consultation services.

If you are starting out, you are going to pick the low-hanging fruit—the most obvious things that might be a problem. It’s just a process of building from there. It’s going to be different for everybody, depending on whether you have somebody on staff with a particular interest in this area, or the time. Safety and health is often the last thing people worry about, because it’s not the major function of most businesses. It is a process. Do some thinking ahead of time. If you try to think about what could go wrong—it doesn’t mean that it’s going to go wrong—it starts the creative juices flowing for how you will confront a problem that pops up, even if it’s not exactly what you envisioned.

Q: What about rural facilities that aren’t located close to emergency response services? What do you advise distributors to do in this case?

GC: I would argue that people are a lot closer to emergency medical services than they think. EMS are within 20 minutes of most facilities—and often much less than that. I don’t think people appreciate the sophistication that is available in ambulance services. They aren’t just gurney jockeys; these people really know their stuff. Obviously, they aren’t going to do heart transplants, but they can do an incredible amount while they are getting someone to an emergency facility. And, emergency service personnel people are very open to becoming more aware of, and more familiar with, your property. For example, many organizations are required to have, or can ask for, fire departments to tour their facilities, and both you and they can potentially benefit.

Think about first aid training. In some cases, it’s an obligation, depending on the workplace exposures. It can’t hurt—no pun intended—to have someone on staff who can provide first aid and deal with Bloodborne Pathogen exposures.

Q: Once an accident has occurred, what steps should be taken to ensure that it is investigated properly?

GC: To preserve the scene, have safety tape available to block off the area. Interview people separately, if at all possible, and soon. People’s perceptions change over time. I do a lot of interviews with people about their workplace concerns, and I know how unreliable the accuracy of what people say can be. One person will say, “That process started two weeks ago.” Someone else will say, “That started two months ago.”

You have to have a climate in which people can actually speak candidly. The investigators’ attitudes, and the way they present themselves, is critical. Is there support from the top for safety and health? You need to have an environment where people can report problems without fear of reprisal.

Q: Should employees be “punished” if they were injured on the job because they weren’t following procedure?

GC: Usually not. However, I can imagine situations where employees have been counseled repeatedly about something, and they still continue to go against procedure. If they are injured, or injure others, as a result of this, it would be tempting to discipline them. But, you better have some documentation to back up your disciplinary action. Initially, however, try to find out what caused the incident, and don’t make assumptions until you learn.

Q: What about return-to-work policies? How do these work best?

GC: I can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to have a return-to-work program. The logic of return-to-work programs is that you don’t let a person, regardless if they have been working for two months or 20 years, get into the habit of staying at home and watching TV all day. It’s a shock for them to not be at work, even though the concept of not going to work may be very attractive for a while. You want to interfere with that process so that these new patterns don’t get solidified. Another aspect of return-to-work programs is that you don’t want to give the employee meaningless work.

If you have a general policy of returning people to work—even though they are not at full capacity and you are giving them alternative tasks to perform—let them know about that before the incident happens. This is a company policy, and you broadcast it: This is what we plan to do.

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