Did company push workers too hard for conditions?

by on October 27, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

As safety director, you know you’ll be called in to advise the company when employees face extreme working conditions. And you know there will be a conflict: The momentum of the company – all its policies and procedures – will tend to under-respond to extreme conditions.

And in many cases, that’s the right approach. But there are other circumstances where you as safety director need to make it clear that business as usual can’t continue.

Ambulances outside the facility
Let’s look at a cautionary example. Amazon.com employs about 1,600 workers, mostly temporary workers, at its Breinigsville, PA distribution center.

During last summer’s heat wave, the warehouse suffered a series of weather-related incidents, injuries and complaints. There were numerous interventions by the company and from OSHA, though OSHA didn’t issue any citations.

The heat-related stresses got so bad that the company had ambulances and emergency-response personnel on the ready in the warehouse parking lot. Workers were reportedly walking out, or being wheeled out in wheelchairs, to receive first aid.

When you have ambulances on stand-by and local ER doctors calling OSHA, you’ve reached the limits of your staff’s productivity. Business as usual is definitely over.

One supervisor who has worked under similar circumstances commented on the Amazon situation, “Under these circumstances, you are only going to get so much productivity out of people. Past that point, you are going to have injuries, illnesses or physical breakdowns.”

“The safety director needed to communicate that to his senior managers – in that heat, the company simply wasn’t going to get any more out of people. Demanding the standard level of productivity was only going to cause more workers to go home or get sick.”

Here’s a run-down of Amazon’s response, with an eye to how you can handle extreme conditions:

1. Have a plan
Amazon had a heat stress management program, which impressed OSHA about the company’s good faith.

OSHA’s post-inspection letter stating no citations would be issued prominently mentioned the plan. Instead, the agency recommended “additional engineering and administrative controls,” such as:

  • reducing temperatures and humidity inside the warehouse
  • offering hourly breaks in a cool area
  • informing workers during the course of a shift of a heat index increase, and
  • offering personal fans for workers.

Bottom line: Putting thought into the plan ahead of time will earn you points with OSHA.

2. Monitor and communicate
During the heat wave, Amazon monitored the extreme conditions. Automatic email warnings sent to workers communicated the heat index.

However, the company responded to these heat indexes in fits and starts. Despite the heat, the warehouse doors were kept shut for fear of theft. That allowed the heat index inside to climb to 110 degrees or more.

The company reminded workers to stay hydrated, told them to take more breaks if they felt signs of heat stress, and gave them the option to go home.

But that wasn’t enough. Workers complained to OSHA, which began its initial inspection. Even after taking some heat-mitigation measures, 14 people ended up in a local emergency room. The ER doctor called OSHA to report the problems.

3. Look at disincentives
Despite Amazon’s safety efforts, workers were still suffering heat-related illnesses. The company had emergency response staff in the parking lot for those workers who were willing to risk the high temperatures.

Business as usual was well over. That would have been fine from a safety standpoint if the company had adjusted its policies accordingly, but it didn’t.

Instead, Amazon left in place its system of demerits for not meeting quotas. That meant workers who left early to protect themselves from the heat ran afoul of the company’s performance-review standards. Same goes for workers who went home.

Since most of the staff are temporary workers, failure to meet quota could result in their not being called back, thus losing their jobs. So workers had a strong incentive to risk their health in the extreme heat. Result: The ER got a rush of workers, and the doctor called OSHA.

4. Insist on adapting
You, as safety director, can help your company when things get to this point by looking at the business case: More worker hours at the same speeds will only result in turnover, workers going home, or to the doctor’s office. As in this case, it can also generate complaints from workers and local officials.

If you can present the hard data on worker risk versus worker productivity, you can make a strong case for adapting the work to conditions. In extreme heat, for example, let workers move slower, ease up on quotas, and offer more breaks.

Remember: The company still won’t get that quota if it insists on it – the conditions won’t allow it. That’s the strongest part of your business case.

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