I need your professional opinion about a situation here at work and I just want to check with you and see if you have experienced something like this and how to deal with it.
I am new to the company and the other day I was conducting the IH exposure assessment for the cleaning of a chemical mixing bowl. I was shocked by the method workers used to clean the bowl.
The mixing bowl was structured in such a way that employees had to dive inside the bowl (in the upside down position) in order to scrape out all the stuffs from the bowl. It took about an hour for them to complete.
I expressed my concerns to my manager, the supervisors, and the operations manager. As an EHS professional, I was very concerned about the work condition, and I believe that it is unacceptable.
My manager and others in the company are aware of this issue and all they had to say to me was: "We have been doing this for so many years and no one has been injured. We can't find any other solution, so if you can, you can be a hero!"
I told them we may have been lucky that no one has actually been injured yet. I was extremely disappointed that they did not take this seriously. I still want to search for a better solution, but I also understand that changing things will be costly to the company and they may push back.
Have you experienced something like this and how did you deal with it? Any advice will help.
~Stirred Up IH
Dear Stirred Up:
This is a great question. I think that most health and safety professionals have faced similar situations at some point in their careers. I don't believe one solution exists that will fit all situations.
Here a few thoughts about your specific problem.
DEFINING YOUR ROLE IN THE ORGANIZATION
Remember, it is the line management's responsibility to manage risks. The main function of a health and safety professional is risk assessment. It is our job to identify risks in our organizations and effectively communicate the risk to management. It is then up to management to decide on how to manage the risk.
In the most basic sense of your responsibilities, you've met your obligation, however, I am sure you want to do more, and I agree. EHS professionals have an obligation to take a more active role in than merely informing management about risks. We need to educate management and use our communication skills to influence their decisions.
BE POSITIVE AND PLEASANT
I am not sure that management does not take the issue seriously. It has already been identified, but they do not yet have a solution. It is uncertain at this point, how much effort has been put into identifying a reasonable solution.
You will want to be persistent, but be sure to focus on being positive and pleasant. As you continue to speak with management about the issue, try to refrain from using judgmental language. Keep to specific and documented facts. Let management determine if they are willing to continue to accept the level of risk.
FIND YOUR CHAMPION
I recommend finding a champion within the organization that can serve as a sounding board for you. This person should be someone that knows the culture well, and can provide insight. The person could be anyone within the organization. You will need to continue working the issue yourself, but it will be helpful to have a confidant or champion working with you.
USE HARD DATA
There are a couple ways to move forward with pressing the issue.
One way is to take a close look at the history of the task. Has no one really been injured at all completing the task? Have there been any near-misses? Perhaps, previous incidents have gone unreported. Has anyone noticed headaches or other health issues after completing the task?
If this is really a dangerous job, and it is done frequently, then it is not really a matter of "if something happens", but "when something happens".
This brings me to the second type of data you may want to use. Look at other operations that have ended with injury or death because management did not recognize the seriousness of an issue until after the fact. A prime example would be NASA's decision to launch the Challenger in January 1986 even though there was data indicating that problems could occur. I am sure you can find other examples as well (BP oil spill, Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, etc.).
Try to find examples closer to your actual scenario that management to which management can relate.
BE CREATIVE WITH SOLUTIONS
I am uncertain that a solution will necessarily be expensive. I don't know the materials or the process, but I would guess that there are multiple ways to accomplish most tasks.
The first thing to do when trying to find a new solution is to check out what has been tried already and why they did not work. One person that is likely to have some ideas on how to improve the job is the worker that is going down headfirst into the mixing bowl. I'm sure he may have thought of something that might work.
Here are a few thoughts that should not necessarily be too costly:
• Design a long handle scraper to scrape from top. You may need a special tool manufactured for this specific purpose
• High pressure water
• Abrasive blasting
Try to have multiple solutions available for management to choose from when solving the problem. It will allow them to make a decision and have a contribution to the process.
Look at a cost-benefit analysis for implementing each solution. You will also want to estimate the cost of the ongoing risk if you continue to do nothing. What is the worst-case scenario in terms of worker health? What is the most likely scenario regarding worker health?
CHANGING A CULTURE IS A LONG PROCESS
You will want to be persistent and tenacious, but don't become a negative pest. This could lead to your departing the company on unpleasant terms for you. I would hesitate to put a lot of information down in writing unless you really want to force the issue.
Emails and written documentation will often get management's attention in a serious way, but it is not always the best way. Few people are comfortable when they perceive they are being forced or pushed into making a decision.
Remember, management is directly responsible. If you sense that management does not share your personal values around worker health and safety, then you may want to start looking for a new management team to work with.