The emergence of Covid19 has reintroduced the term PPE or personal protective equipment in society. However, PPE is a common term used in health and safety. It is an everyday scene that building painters are found to be working on high-rise structures without a safety harness or technicians working in a vehicle repair shop without being aware of any safety measures whatsoever. If one has ever had a trip to Old Dhaka, thousands of labourers are seen undertaking hazardous work in high-risk repair shops, chemical and plastic factories wearing anything but PPE.
Examples like this are common where people are deliberately ignoring the issue of health and safety. When asked, a building painter explained his reason for not wearing PPE. Growing up in a village, he was actively engaged in physical activities such as running, climbing trees and swimming. So, he believes his body is strong enough to withstand any workplace-related hazards. He further argued that most of the local contractors did not provide them with PPE. But even if he is provided with one, sometimes he does not feel the need to use it. This painter cannot be entirely blamed for this as he might be uninformed about the potential risks of his job.
The societal negligence and ignorance about health and safety concerns sometimes lead to big accidents. Among these, Tazreen and Rana plaza garments accidents are notable in recent years. These accidents have taken thousands of innocent lives. Until there are accidents like Tazreen and Rana Plaza to create a lot of news coverage on them, people don not become aware of health and safety issues. The root cause of all such workplace-related accidents is lack of concern about health and safety among senior management people as well as workers' ignorance and unfamiliarity with workplace safety. But at first, it is important to understand what health and safety is.
In a simpler term, health and safety is a discipline to ensure people's safety, welfare and health at the workplace. It refers to guidelines and procedures to develop a safe working environment and culture, aiming to minimize, if not prevent, the risk of accidents, injuries, illness and fatalities on the job.
Though the concept of health and safety may sound trivial to the average person, promoting a safety culture at work has been found to be lifesaving as concluded by several studies. Not only are people's lives being protected through proper implementation of health and safety programme, but companies can also save money, medical costs, damaged facility and even substantial litigation cost by preventing accidents.
Implementing a health and safety programme at work is challenging, especially in an environment where majority of the workers have little knowledge of health and safety. More importantly, a worker's perceptions about safety can immensely influence his or her willingness to speak up due to common communication obstacles including fear of losing job, creating interpersonal conflict and retaliation. If The problem of such disengagement and lack of information among workers arising from this kind of communication barriers, if not addressed, can ultimately lead to accidents.
This is where effective two-way safety communication plays a crucial role. Starting from senior managers, it is important to facilitate and create a supportive and accepting environment of both positive and negative feedback, so as to ensure workers are always given the freedom to speak up. When workers are encouraged to regularly communicate with each other in an open and respectful manner, they are more likely to give and receive feedback. This way workers learn and become part of a company's safety culture through communication.
If the effective communication is the key to creating a safety culture, one might wonder how to improve it. Anthropological analysis can make communication approaches stronger as it provides a broader view. But first, it is to be noted that workers' mistakes are not the only reason to point finger at. Poor management decisions that overlook the need to establish effective communication networks with workers or disregard workers' feedback on health and safety at workplace need also to be revied. Therefore, a shared responsibility should be promoted rather than a disjointed one.
The first step in improving safety communication is to change the perception about safety that is putting safety first. For instance, construction workers need to wear PPE and conduct regular equipment safety checks to ensure they are safe to use. In contrast, office workers don't need to check fire-alarm every day, but a monthly test will ensure they're able to react safely, if a fire breaks out. Therefore, the bottom line is to ensure that these safety practices are implemented in action, not just documented as policy, and senior managers are regularly communicating with workforce.
Once the safety practices are in place, the next step is to measure and monitor the performance of workers' engagement by assessing basic safety records such as frequency of safety checks, attendance rates at safety meetings, number of incidents/accidents etc. This way areas of company with low engagement can be ascertained, and therefore, targeted advice can be provided.
Subsequently, the means of providing and receiving safety-related feedback can be improved. Practices such as making it personal and condescending criticism should be avoided, rather demonstrating genuine concern for others' feelings and well-being is recommended. It is always a good practice to be open and receptive to constructive feedback. Senior managers can establish a reward-based incentive for workers showing outstanding safety performance and communicate this achievement throughout the company to encourage every worker.
Covid19 has given a whole new dimension to improving health and safety practices at workplace. Companies should consider having workers work remotely as much as possible. Should the physical presence be deemed necessary, limiting the number of workers, avoiding large in-person meetings, increasing cleaning and personal hygiene practic and regular safety reminders would be a good option to start with. Last but not the least, everyone should continue the practice of maintaining social distance and hand sanitising.
Eusha Rahman is author and researcher, Eusha.firstname.lastname@example.org
Sabbir Hossain, health and safety expert, Hossain5@ualberta.ca
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