Learning from home centers, a risky business for safety

Whether you’re a full-time safety professional or someone who’s just good at spotting hazardous conditions, the following information should come as no surprise:

Home improvement centers have their share of risks:

  • Exposures risks in home centers are similar to large-scale commercial distribution centers (e.g., materials stacked overhead; racking systems; moving and lifting equipment; manual material handling and box cutting; potential slip hazards at docks and other outdoor locations, and more).
  • 12 percent of all high DART rate letters from OSHA went to retailers in this segment. Significant given that this segment accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. workforce.

When I was responsible for safety at distribution centers, I was always concerned about interactions between people and equipment. I stressed mutual responsibility for workers on foot and lift operators and never endorsed uncontrolled foot traffic within storage areas. Occasionally I encountered pushback. One comment, in particular, stands out:

“Let me get this right, you don’t want my highly trained employees in active material handling aisles, but , I can visit my local home center or wholesale warehouse any time and see the general public walking around lift operators.”

Since that conversation, it’s been validating for me to see a trend in increased home center precautions. Spotters and aisle isolation are now the norm.

Lessons resulting from this conversation have stuck with me over the years.

  • People learn though doing and they learn by observing others.
  • Learning happens wherever people happen to be (including home centers).
  • Gracefully performed at-risk practices may be mistakenly perceived as safe practices.

All too often, the disparity between actual risk and perceived risk only becomes apparent after “accidents” occur. We can differentiate among work practices and drive at an accurate, shared understanding of risk before accidents happen:

  • Analyze tasks associated with accidents (or situations where employees believe accidents are likely to occur). Near miss incidents should be considered.
  • Perform a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). Involve employees whose jobs are being evaluated.
  • Standardize safe practices in written job procedures. Call out dangerous practices.
  • Train, re-train, role model and coach standardized safe job procedures.
  • Perhaps most importantly, help workers understand that the absence of accidents is not necessarily the same thing as the presence of safety.

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