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Let's Take a Practical Look at the Definition of Safety

Starting With the Formal Definition

If you were look in a dictionary, textbook, or online search, you'd probably see safety defined something like this. It's the state of being free from harm resulting from physical, mental, financial, or similar things. If you want to take a look at an existing formal definition, check out Merriam-Webster online.

The formal definition is quite broad, and it also applies to specific things such as firearms or billiards. But at least when I think of it, I am thinking of safety as is related to people or things of value. In thinking about it, things of value require being of significant intelligence to put value in them. So even when talking about things of value, the question is to whom are they valuable to?

Practically Defining Safety

It's in the title, so it's time to answer this. Practically doing anything means that you do it in such as way that it can be done within the scope and resources available to you. This is contrasted with ideally doing something. The ideal, which sometimes is nearly attainable assumes very few constraints. For example, many of us want to eat healthy. But in many cases, healthy food is on the pricey side, especially currently. But, if you had the money, or had the ability to grow your own food, if you had what you think you need, etc. then you could do this.

So, the ideal is what you would do if you were in the position to do so. And that would make doing something practically how close to the desired effect you can get with what you do have. So, practical safety would be minimizing the likelihood of harm occurring within the resources, time, and knowledge that you currently have. Part of doing this will be to keep the principles of being safe, such as evaluating your surroundings for hazards but applying them differently depending on where you are and what you are working with. How about we look at two scopes: workplace safety and safety at home.

Workplace Safety

I wanted to start here because arguably there's a lot of variability in what it takes to be safe. But if you boil things down, we should see some key things to take into account. So, if you are a new person at a job, how do you know how to be safe from harm? Well if your employer is fulfilling their responsibilities properly, they are helping you in this... a lot. That said, you have to first realize one thing. You are not invincible. A piece of paper is capable of hurting you, even potentially leading to an infection. I'm sure many people who read this have heard of the dreaded paper cut. Cue the gasps and shocked, horror-stricken faces!

The Employee's Perspective

With that in mind, we can think back to some things that hurt us at home. Here's a short list to help us do that.

  • Burns from food, grease, hot ovens, or pots

  • Cuts from sharp object like paper, knives, box cutters, or sharp table edges

  • Stubbed toes from random household items

  • Bumped heads from looking in floor level cabinets and getting up to fast before pulling your head all the way back out

  • Static shock from touching random things when it's winter.

I'd love it if some of you who read give some of your own experiences in the comments. So, leave one. Don't be shy! Now, you may be asking why I'm using household things that you know can hurt you for safety in the workplace. I'm doing this because when you go to work for the first time, chances are good that you have already experience many things before you were old enough to legally work and earn income. Guess what? They are a good place to start in looking at your workplace for things that can hurt you! And there often are far more things in a workplace that can hurt you.

Even though your employer has a large responsibility for providing a safe work environment, you need to first care about your own safety. It's practical to start with the knowledge and experience you already have. From the employee perspective, here are useful tips to ensuring you do your part to ensuring you are taking a practical look in protecting your safety at work.

  • Remember that you can be hurt. You probably got hurt to some degree as a child. Many of those same things can still hurt you... badly.

  • If you think that a bad event won't happen to you, you could be right. But consider this. You have to be right every day for how ever long you work in the workplace. I only have to be right once.

  • Look for things in the workplace that seem similar to things you know can hurt at home.

  • Ask questions about training and how things work.

  • Be aware of your surroundings and stay clear of any moving equipment where possible. If it's processing wood, metal, or some other material, it might be able to "process" you just as easily. You don't want this.

  • Read signs and follow their instructions.

  • If you aren't sure, ASK!

The Employer's Perspective

Remember when I said that employers have a duty to provide a safe work environment? Well, that true. In the United States, in particular, there's a law called the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It's here, in section 5 for duties, that this is expressly stated. This law is also where the authority to make standards, and to require employers and employees to follow them, comes from.

That said, laws and regulations can't foresee all ends. And if you haven't figured out how to practically achieve something, then there's a good chance you still, ultimately, won't be in compliance either. Just because there might not be a specific standard in place telling employers what they must do doesn't mean they don't have a duty to improve their workplace if they find employees are not safe from recognized hazards.

Unlike at home, an employer often (though not always) has greater overall resources available. But that doesn't mean they are inexhaustible. So, lets look at some tips to practically achieve safety at work.

  • Perform job hazard analyses for each work area and job.

  • Use the hierarchy of controls, in this order as is feasible, to take care of hazards: eliminate them, substitute for something less hazardous, engineer protections against the hazards, use administrative controls (such as procedures) to control or avoid hazards, use personal protective equipment (PPE) to offer protection against harm from hazards.

  • Evaluate operations for efficiency and effectiveness. Sometimes safety problems are really operational effectiveness or efficiency problems. If you have to perform control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) procedures multiple times a shift or day, you should be asking why that's the case. Perhaps it's time to fix the equipment.

  • Don't treat safety issues and operational inefficiency or ineffectiveness as merely the cost of doing business. You can often lower long-term costs by making an investment in safety.

  • Avoid solving problems only through training. Training usually involves some level of administrative controls and/or PPE. If you identify that fall protection is needed in an area, consider adding guard rails or a safety net system before resorting to using personal fall arrest systems. Those require a lot of additional training, inspection, PPE, etc.

  • Remember that your employees were hired to do a specific job or set of job tasks. While you should want them to be safe, it's not their primary reason for being there. So, don't add more than is needed to what they need to know and do. Make areas safe by design.

  • Don't protect to what you think the "letter of the law" is. Protect to what will get the job done. This generally means you will both meet the letter of the law and achieve practical safety. If you put up a guard, make sure it fully protects against the hazard. If people can get to something, they often will.

  • Think of safety as an investment. You will probably see the "cost of doing business" go down if safety is done feasibly, steadily, and effectively.

  • Get input from your field employees. They are your eyes and ears. Encourage them to let you know about problems. But also encourage them to aid with solutions to said problems.

Similarities for Employees and Employers

There are a lot more tips for the employer side. But frankly, there is a lot more that needs to be done to practically achieve a safe work environment. That said, there is a least one unifying principle for both. They need to change how they think and approach a situation. Employees can think that something won't happen to them, but it can. Employers can think accidents just happen and are just the cost of doing business. But they aren't. Most incidents/accidents are preventable.

Being willing to look at things differently can lead to beneficial change on both sides. When last I checked, we've only come so far at putting Humpty Dumpty (that's you and me) back together again when sufficiently hurt. I'm also not a fan of pain, not to mention the loss of utility and independence that can come with a suitably bad injury. So, how about we take a hard, honest look at how to ensure how to keep the workplace safe in a feasible, affordable manner.

Safety at Home

You didn't think safety was just a workplace thing did you? If you did, I've got news for you. It's not. That's why I talked about some of the things you probably already know can hurt you. You probably learned about such things at home or at least not in a workplace setting. To take a bit of a deeper dive into safety at home, let's take a broader look at the hazards you potentially face at home.

  • Electrical hazard are present and of particular concern if you have small children.

  • If you have gas powered appliances, such as water heaters or stoves, then you have both a fire and asphyxiation hazard.

  • You have burn hazards from hot water, electric stoves, and similar heat sources.

  • You have potentially hazardous chemicals around the house, such as bug sprays, bleach, and cleaning chemicals.

  • You have things you can slip, trip, and fall because of or on.

  • You have sharp items, such as knives, that can cut or puncture.

  • You have fall hazards from heights if you have multiple stories or are handy.

  • If you have a significant to substantial tool shed, you have a lot more opportunities for injury, such as cutting or chopping wood, hammering, drilling, etc.

I bet this list can be longer, but you should get the idea. Now, don't these hazards seem similar to those you could encounter in the workplace? Sure, each workplace is different. But just eyeballing this list, electricity, cleaning chemicals, and slip/trip hazards definitely are applicable in many workplaces. So, why treat how you look at things any differently just because the scope is different? Well, you may not have access to the level of resources. That may be so, but the hazards usually aren't quite as big either.

One thing that probably will be different for practical safety at home versus in the workplace is that administrative controls and PPE will likely be more relevant. It's harder to design safety into crafting projects with power tools. That said, you can start off higher in the hierarchy of controls if you try. For instance, you could substitute bleach with an hydrogen peroxide. As a general rule, you can look to substitute various chemicals that may be harmful with less harmful ones that are still effective. I've used EWG in the past to look at the hazard rating for various products. You can ensure that your tools have guards on them. You can make sure you use a fume hood where you are welding.

Key Takeaways

Treat making any improvements to safety like you should with improvements to being more sustainable. Be sustainable in your efforts. What do I mean by this? I mean don't jeopardize today's needs by trying to be better for tomorrow. Go at a pace that allows you to sustain the growth and see the benefits. Otherwise, you will be forced to stop and perhaps might not get back into it. Look at safety as an investment. If looking at it from an individual perspective, it is an investment in your continued utility and prosperity. If looking at if from a business perspective, it is an investment in minimizing costs and maximizing productivity if done correctly.

There won't be a precise one size fits all approach. But the principles in how you look at things will be similar. To recap, here are the things you should remember and make use of in most any situation to maintain and improve safety.

  • Remember that people are not invincible. There's a lot that can hurt them.

  • Be aware of your situation.

  • Evaluate the hazards. Use what you know and seek out additional information as needed.

  • Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. If you aren't sure, ask.

  • Learn what's available and what's expected. Keep and open mind and keep learning.

  • Improve at a rate that you can maintain.

  • Look at safety as an investment. Don't rest on "it won't happen to me" or "it's just the cost of doing business".

  • Address the hazards, where feasible, using the hierarchy of controls. Use them in this order: eliminate hazards, substitute a hazardous thing for a less hazardous thing, engineer protections against the hazards, use administrative controls, and use PPE.

We've said earlier what practical safety is. But do you understand it? It's going to be being honest about your situation, assessing what's harmful, and taking care of it in the most effective, feasible manner. Feasible simply means that it's within your reasonable ability to do. I hope you all stay safe out there, and I hope to see you in the comments!

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