OPERATIONS: Workplace safety too often overlooked, experts say

Dec. 13, 2005

An employee of your pizzeria is hurt on the job and has to miss a day at work. If the operation is understaffed, the first area to take the hit is the labor budget; someone's going to work some overtime.

But that's not where the costs stop adding up, of course. Chances are productivity will suffer, and if the replacement staffer isn't as skilled as the injured worker, product quality and customer service are threatened. Should the injury be significant, medical and insurance costs are added to the tab, not to mention potential worker's compensation costs — and those are mere short-term issues.

According to Deb Potter, a co-owner of Potter and Associates, a Tulsa, Okla., safety consultancy, the loss of a worker due to injury can cost a business as much as $1,000 a day when every

start quoteThe average lawsuit over a workplace injury is settled over a 10-year period and pays $12,000. That's especially bad for someone who's planning for the future.end quote

— Deb Potter,
Safety consultant
Potter and Associates

potential cost is added up.

"People don't always think it through, the total cost," said Potter. "Every year in America, $58 billion is spent on lost-time injuries; that means when person has to be away from work. That's a big number. And if people understood the real cost, they might think more about safety."The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show nonfatal private industry workplace injuries and illnesses are on a modest decline: 4.3 million reported in 2004 versus 4.4 million in 2003. Still, approximately 2.2 million of those injuries and illnesses required days away from work, a job transfer or a restriction that required recuperation away from the worker's original position.

In the foodservice industry, where cross-training is the norm, the impact of shifting workers around likely is somewhat less, as there are people able to step in and fill the void — that is until the industry plague of turnover is factored in. Without experienced people in key positions, quality can suffer, said Potter.

Worse, she added, constant turnover and the resulting need to train and retrain workers on job skills alone typically makes safety training an afterthought. Potter's husband and business partner, Carl, also a consultant, said that fact surprises no one since time spent on safety training doesn't generate sales.

"The goal in most restaurants is to get food out the door as fast as possible," said Carl. "That causes people to take shortcuts and think less about safety when leadership should communicate the message, 'We're going to prepare the food, cook it and deliver it without getting hurt.'"

Safety: Not an easy sell

That owners and managers think little about safety surprises neither Potter. Carl said a friend of his who oversees a hotel foodservice operation simply "wants people to show up for work." Such sentiment is popular, but perilous, he said.

Safety-mindedness, said Deb, deserves the same attention given to morale or quality control. Drawing on her own experience as a fast-food worker growing up, she knows operators hope employees are careful while they push employees to focus on speed and service first.

"Growing up working at a Dairy Queen, all I heard about was food cost, food cost, food cost, or how quickly we turned the orders," said Deb, a Ph.D. in organization management and business. "I have this visual of how messy it got in the preparation areas, and I remember a lot of slipping around."

Owners and managers must believe in and practice safety standards if they expect hourly workers to follow safety policies. Conveying that message clearly must be a matter of, "Do as I do," not 'Do as I say," she said.

Training has to be thorough, visual and personal, the Potters said.

"Saying, 'I don't want you to get hurt,' is too vague. Managers need to pinpoint the exact behavior they want," said Carl. "They need to be very direct about every risk situation, such as when they find something on the floor that could cause a slip. They must stress the need to clean it up immediately. Or they have to tell their employees how to use a knife a specific way and show them."

Such specific instructions are a necessity with younger workers, he added. "This generation does not communicate intuitively, they need specific direction," followed by visual reinforcement. When the Potters conduct workplace safety assessments, they instruct clients to create manuals that include photos of an operation's equipment, along with descriptions of the unique safety hazards of each piece. Simply posting a sign reading, "Hot! Don't touch!" has little impact on a 17-year-old who thinks he won't get hurt. But a detailed description of what a pan heated to 500 F in an oven can do to one's skin gets his attention, Carl said.

"Operators have to associate risks with the work assigned," he said. "To really get the message across, they need to identify them clearly. Use technology like photos from digital cameras to do that. ... Describe what a burn is like, the pain that comes from it and the medical treatment required to heal it."

Carl also stressed the use of mentors to inculcate a safety-minded culture in the operation.

"Have managers choose some of their more-seasoned workers and have them mentor new hires on safety," he said. "Have them show new hires proper techniques and then have them continue to watch and correct them. It sends the message that the owners care and that this is important."

Worst-case scenario

For employees who think, "Oh, that'll never happen to me," encourage them to understand the potential danger of their job, said Deb. Having never suffered the pain of a workplace injury feeds younger workers' lax attitudes regarding risk, which heightens their vulnerability to accidents.

"Human error is behind 99.9 percent of all workplace accidents," Deb said. "And there is study after study saying that these are avoidable accidents when people are careful."

Younger workers don't understand the long-term potential damage caused by a workplace accident unless operators explain it in real terms. What may seem like a simple hand injury suffered as a young adult could cost someone a well-paying career down the line.

"Depending on how

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old the worker is, they could lose millions of dollars in earnings over a lifetime, depending on how long they're out of work and the career they might have," Deb said.

Carl provided this example: "Say they're planning to be a surgeon, and they're working in a pizza place during college. The guy slips and falls on some olives on the floor, injures his hand or arm and suffers a pinched nerve that leaves him unable to operate. A potential surgical career is down the tubes with one accident. Younger people don't think that way."

Some think that if they get injured, they can get their millions by suing the company.

Think again, said Deb.

"That's a fallacy, period," she said. "The average lawsuit over a workplace injury is settled over a 10-year period and pays $12,000. That's especially bad for someone who's planning for the future."

Topics: Operations Management

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