Improving Safety Through Broad Knowledge

Conventional wisdom suggests that the safety manager at a facility needs to be an expert on things like applicable OSHA regulations, incident rates, and safety patterns at the facility itself. While all of this may be true, Dr. Judith A. Erickson argues that their knowledge must be much broader than that in order to truly be effective. She shared an article titled, “Interdisciplinarity: Increasing Safety Performance” to the LinkedIn group, EHSQ Elite. In the article and the discussion it generated, it becomes clear that the traditional ‘safety topics’ are just not enough when looking to create the safest possible workplace.

Knowledge of the Hard Sciences

In the article, Dr. Erickson writes,

“To more effectively and efficiently discharge their responsibilities, OSH professionals should be aware of and conversant in many disciplines and fields of knowledge. For example, OSH professionals must have working knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, human anatomy and physiology, systems, toxicology, epidemiology, statistics and fire science, among others.”

This is quite a list, and it may surprise (or even worry) many people working as safety managers. It is important to note that the article isn’t suggesting that someone is an expert in each of these areas, but simply that they have working knowledge of them, and specifically, how they can impact the safety of their facility. Let’s look at a few specific examples of how these things may apply:

  • Chemistry – A safety manager should be aware of the basic chemistry of the chemicals used in the facility. They should know, for example, if there are any chemicals that will react dangerously when exposed to water, so they can implement a non-water based fire suppression system near those chemicals.
  • Physics – Understanding the physics of how machines in the facility work can help the safety manager to identify potential risks that may otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Human Anatomy – Being aware of human anatomy, and how that can impact safety, is critical. Even simple things like added risks for tall or short people can greatly improve safety.

Knowledge of the Soft Sciences

In addition to the above mentioned ‘hard sciences,’ the article discusses the importance of a safety manager being educated on ‘soft sciences.’ These would include things like organizational behavior, management, occupational psychology, learning theory, training, social psychology and human factors.

Each of these areas can help a safety manager better predict how the ‘human element’ will influence safety in a facility. This is an often overlooked aspect of workplace safety, and can result in serious accidents.

Don’t Point Fingers | Find Solutions

Martin Hogan commented on the LinkedIn post saying,

“Brilliant article Judith! I agree that Safety professional should have a knowledge of the sciences. I particularly like your point about human error and organizational performance…”

to which Dr. Erickson replied,

“…You’re exactly right that it’s far easier to point a finger of blame than to examine the system – and the system is interdisciplinary…”

This brings up the fact that when there are accidents, injuries, or other problems in the workplace, people often look for who to blame. When the safety manager has a more well-rounded knowledge base, however, that is less likely to happen. This is because the safety professional will have a better understanding of the decisions and actions of the employees that led up to the accident or injury, as well as their responses.

This understanding can really go a long way toward avoiding the ‘finger pointing’ and move directly to finding real solutions that can keep a problem from happening again. The same concepts can be applied to ‘near-miss’ situations, which can help a facility to avoid serious accidents completely.

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