Many of the 38 employees at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee routinely handle hazardous chemicals and solvents to create smooth-as-glass
ice for Olympic skaters. For safety's sake, it's essential that the workers know about toxic fumes and respirators involved in the ammonia-based ice-making system.
But Bill Greinke, executive director of the Olympic training center, wasn't happy with the standard, written safety materials about the system. He knew experience had shown that highly technical messages often didn't get through to workers who needed it. So when it came time to institute his own program, Greinke decided to do things differently. Instead of relying solely on written manuals, he also used safety videos.
"The absolutely best way to educate the workforce about safety is in the medium in which they're most at home," says Glenn Gronitz, president of Quality Safety Management, a Milwaukee consulting firm and designer of Greinke's program. "Television and videos are what people know."
Alternative safety-training methods are cropping up in many businesses in the form of board games, training by consensus, and hands-on sessions, as well as videos.
Most businesses still rely on the difficult-to-read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), Greinke points out. "But there's no standard format. They're prepared by the manufacturers of hazardous products, so each MSDS is entirely different," he says. "You really have to hunt to find the basic information."
Finding alternatives to written safety materials is becoming increasingly necessary for companies today. About 90 million Americans demonstrate low competency in basic reading, math, and reasoning, according to a study by the US Department of Education. Data sheets such as the MSDS generally are written at a high-school or college level.
In addition, a recent Census Bureau report indicates the number of US residents for whom English is a foreign language is nearly 32 million. Yet, common safety-training programs are typically geared to an English-speaking audience.
There is a communication gap in the workplace for safety training, according to Elizabeth Szudy, coauthor with Michele Gonzalez Arroyo of The Right To Understand: Linking Literacy to Health and Safety Training.
"Information should be targeted to a wide audience with varying language skill levels," according to Szudy. "Employers should just assume that some percentage of their employees are grappling with the written word."
Safety Training Tips
Here are ten techniques for conveying safety information without relying strictly on written materials.
Use visual aids. Gronitz, of Quality Safety Management, used generic safety-training videos at the Pettit National Ice Center to introduce the subject of safety. This approach comes from experience: "For 20 years, I've worked with supervisors who can't read or write." He also uses widely available standard safety videos and customizes them to meet a particular firm's needs.
Foster participatory training. When Mark TenBrink, environmental manager of Micro Metallics, in San Jose, conducted safety training, he used easy-to-follow participatory methods to sidestep language and literacy problems. Micro Metallics determines the recycling value of scrap metal in used manufacturing and electronic equipment.
The firm's workers were divided into groups of two to four and given a large sheet of paper with an outline of the facility on it. Employees were asked to mark different hazards with a certain color X, an activity which helped employees identify gaps in their knowledge.
Play a game. The familiar activity of a board game also served to explain safety concepts at Micro Metallics. The center of the board displayed the outline of a human body depicting internal organs. Players moved around the board by selecting cards that asked about the effects of various chemicals on organs.
Turn tests into learning sessions. "Certain [federal] regulations dictate that you test after a training course," says Dana Zanone, environmental affairs manager of Myers Container Corporation in Richmond, California. Zanone transforms the exams into an opportunity to reinforce safety messages covered during training. First, the material is presented, a review is conducted immediately, and "we literally give them the answers," Zanone says. Then he gives the test as a collective exercise. "We read the question aloud, and the group comes to consensus on the answer," Zanone says.
Use a translator. A translator is essential in reaching a multilingual work force. Robert Borovicka, plant manager at Plastonics, a plastic-coatings business in Hartford, Conn., recruits an employee fluent
in Spanish and English to provide translations. Of Borovicka's 25 employees, more than half use English as a second language, and several speak no English.
Hands-on training. Quality Safety Management's Gronitz supplements presentations with individualized hands-on training. When showing employees how to use a respirator around hazardous chemicals, he asks each worker to try on the apparatus. He then sprays vegetable oil into the air. If employees can smell or taste the mist, they know they're not using the gear properly.
Show workers you care. When Cary Grobstein was vice president of sales administration at Cardinal Color, Inc., a paint company in Paterson, N.J., he wanted his workers to know he wouldn't require them to do anything he wouldn't do himself. So he poured the nontoxic chemicals that make up paint onto his hands to prove they were safe to handle. But he quickly explained that they were hazardous if ingested.
"It's important that workers understand management is sensitive to their concerns about handling chemicals," he says. Grobstein, who now owns LBL Sales, a chemical brokerage firm also in Paterson, often works beside employees to demonstrate how to handle chemicals.
Offer positive reinforcement. Roger Sheaffer, owner of Sheaffer, Allan and Hoyme Safety Consultants Inc., in Addison, Texas, says successful accident-prevention programs require upbeat reinforcement. "Many of these workers are doing hard manual labor and are unaccustomed to receiving positive feedback," he says.
Train in context. Rather than suddenly springing safety training on workers, Laurie Kellogg, health and safety specialist for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in New York, recommends placing the discussion in a comprehensive framework.
Kellogg lets people know ahead of time what will happen. She begins her sessions with a clear introduction of the topic and why it's important to each employee. "They're not going to take you seriously if you just throw information at them," she emphasizes.
Create a sense of "ownership" in safety. Greinke of the Milwaukee skating center gave an employee safety team authority to resolve hazards in the workplace - not just bring them to management's attention. "I oversee what they do, but they take the initiative and have their own small budget," he says. "Because they're directly involved, they're more responsive to the solution."
For example, the team recognized a concrete and metal stairway posed a danger to workers with wet shoes, so they added a sandpaper strip to the edge of each step.
Clearly, there are many ways for a company to convey information about hazards and to cultivate employee commitment to safety. It's also a safe bet that relying solely on written materials won't get
the job done.
"Offer a range of approaches, and let the employees select what's best for them," Szudy advises. "It may be a little extra work, but the payoff is the absolute assurance that you're getting your message across."
Reprinted by permission, Nation's Business, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Ergonomics to Reduce Injuries
Every year thousands of office workers suffer neck, back and hand injuries due to improper work posture or poorly arranged work environments. Here are some helpful tips given by Eve Abbott, health consultant in her latest seminar series Ergo-Dynamic Dynamos.
You are the best person to prevent ergonomic injury. Increase your awareness of ergonomic symptoms, injuries, and risk factors. Repetitive Stress Injuries can be disabling, costly and career ending. Learn safe methods to minimize risks and injuries. Develop new work style habits to work well.
Eyes. Position top of monitor at or slightly below eye level. Adjust screen brightness and contrast. Place screen between light sources to avoid glare. Position yourself 18" to 28" from the monitor. Clean screen often.
Posture. Keep your chin tucked in. Avoid tensing shoulders, stretching your neck forward or twisting your body. Do not cross legs or shift weight to one side. Periodically get up and walk around, stretch and breathe deeply.
Hands and wrists. Position the keyboard to allow hands and forearms to remain straight and parallel to the floor. Avoid resting your wrists or hands on hard/sharp surfaces. Keep your mouse or TouchPad at keyboard level.
Rest and breaks. Take 5-minute rest breaks every hour when computing. Vary work activity and avoid prolonged periods of continuous computer use. Go for walks at lunch and take 15-minute social breaks, morning and afternoon.
Chair. Adjust chair height to avoid pressure on tailbone (seat too low) or lower thighs (seat too high). Best height allows a 90-120 degree knee angle with feet parallel to the floor and thighs gently sloped. And sit back in your chair!