Recently, I was teaching at an ASP/CSP Exam Workshop when the conversation turned to some new technology for preventing amputations on table saws. I was only peripherally aware of this interesting technology when I asked the question, "How much does it cost, and is it worth it?" There was a very strong moan from the class with a comment or two suggesting that my heart may not really be into safety. How could I be concerned about cost when an employee's fingers are at stake? Many responded with concerned comments for the people losing their fingers.
Well, I am certainly all in favor of using engineering controls to minimize injury risks, but it is also important to weigh the cost of the engineering controls. Part of our responsibilities as safety professionals is that we perform a cost-benefit analysis before recommending the newest engineering technology. Our employers are looking to us to be the experts.
Here is a simple example. Suppose Bowen Furniture Mills' standard table saw has been operating for 20 years without an injury. Now let's suppose the cost of a new saw with the latest safeguarding technology is $100,000, with ongoing maintenance costs of $2,000 each year. (These costs are for illustrative purposes only and do not reflect actual prices.) That's a total cost of $120,000 for the first 10 years of the saw's operation. If Bowen Furniture Mills makes an annual net profit of $10,000 each year, then the company would suffer significant losses for several years if it chose to buy the latest technology. The factory's very financial viability could be at stake.
There are always multiple ways to prevent on-the-job injuries. Good training and standard safe operating procedures along with other engineering controls can sufficiently lower the risks for any company. Given the long-term positive safety record at Bowen Furniture Mills, there's no solid justification for the capital expense of the new saw.
On the other hand, if the cost for the new technology, including maintenance, is only a $100 each year for 10 years, then it would be a bargain at $1,000. It would be a no-brainer to go with the new saw.
This is not to say that we should ignore the human factor of the equation. A thorough analysis always looks at the overall probability and cost of an amputation, in order to more concisely calculate the cost of the risk of operating a standard saw. Both direct and indirect costs of the accident need to be considered. I believe most business professionals would be willing to spend a more on the technology than the cost of the risk. How much more would vary based on the size of the company, its financial health and the values of the person making the decision.
We all need to consider the costs of risks whether we want to or not. An out-of-business factory may be a very safe place for its workers, but only because it has none.