Under federal and state laws, and most principally the Occupational Safety and Health Act, workers have a right to a safe workplace free of known health and safety hazards.
This right poses a challenge to employers in the construction industry where employees experience higher rates of work-related injury compared to other types of workers. By law, employers have a specific obligation to provide training on employee rights and responsibilities in connection with occupational safety and potential work-related incidents. Specifically, employers must instruct employees to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions, follow regulations and control or eliminate any hazards or other exposure to illness or injury, such as falls, electrocution or environmental exposure.
Should an incident occur, an employer’s training program will undoubtedly be scrutinized to determine if insufficient training was a contributing factor. Indeed, OSHA has stated that its enhanced enforcement agenda will evaluate the adequacy of employee training in issuing citations to employers. To reduce the likelihood of regulatory exposure following an incident, and to better ensure an incident-free environment in general, employers should carefully and continually re-evaluate their training programs. Following are some key reminders to consider when reviewing a training program to reduce the risk of an incident, and to protect an employer should an unfortunate incident occur.
- Start with the tone at the top. Adequately training employees begins with a true culture of safety driven from the very top of the organization. A corporate dedication to safety, and the policies that implement that goal, should present a focused and clear message to employees that they have a vested interest in their training. Safety affects everyone and is therefore everyone’s responsibility.
- Promote reporting. Reinforce the message from the top by encouraging employees to spot and report potential problems. Many incidents could have been avoided if an employee who knew of the problem felt empowered to report it to a supervisor without fear of reprisal.
- Create clear and consistent communication channels. No safety training program will succeed without clear and consistent communication up and down the line. Even well-trained employees will not be effective where there is no conduit through which they can act on their training. Management must ensure a mechanism exists to convey verbal, written and online communication of the safety program to employees, and for employees to report back their observations. The means and methods of communication should be reinforced in company publications, meetings and job evaluations.
- Make training formal. Informal statements to an employee about safety do not constitute the training required by law, nor will it achieve its purpose, nor can an employer assume that common sense and experience obviate the need for formal training. Many companies require employees to participate in the OSHA 30-Hour Construction Safety and Health Outreach Program for supervisory positions, and the OSHA 10-Hour Construction Safety and Health Outreach Program for all project personnel. Employees should be given manuals or other documents that detail the process and procedures for identifying and reporting potential problems, and should verify, in writing, that they understand the procedures.
- Continuous training updates. An employer’s safety training must be continually updated and reinforced. One formal training session is not sufficient. Weekly tool box talks are a common method of providing employees with information about hazards and safety procedures to prevent incidents. At least yearly, an employer should conduct and update training to ensure that employees understand changed rules and regulations. Updates reinforce the theme that employees are a part of the safety program and are important to the company.