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The Chain Reaction of Missing PPE

Man working at heights with no PPE

It’s not uncommon for the trained eye to see an advertisement that takes place in a workplace setting and the required PPE is noticeably missing. It could be a window washer not wearing fall protection or a construction worker not wearing a hard hat. Unintentionally, these media spots are conditioning viewers to accept that not wearing required PPE is normal practice. The continued images of workers not wearing PPE in a workplace setting can lower a person’s risk perception. 

Most people have seen the iconic photograph “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” from 1932. Eleven ironworkers are eating lunch on a beam 850 feet above street level during the construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York. The men depicted in the photograph appear to be carefree. And even though the photo was staged for publicity, the risk of falling was still present. This is a classic example of how the media downplays risk.    

Granted, in 1932, companies and the government did not enforce (or even have) the safety regulations that they do today; it was a time when a certain number of deaths on the job were expected. But even with the enforcement of safety regulations, risk perception can still be altered just as easily. As mentioned in our webinar, Why People Don’t Wear PPE and How to Get Them to Start, a survey revealed that 98% of workers have witnessed their colleagues performing activities without PPE when they should be wearing it. Clearly, at least some of this is the result of conditioning, complacency and risk perspective.

An employee’s situational awareness in the workplace is how they perceive what’s going on around them. In safety terms, it’s kind of like a job hazard analysis. As employees assess their working conditions, they need to be able to identify what could be a hazard. The safety culture of a company can greatly impact how employees react to risk. Like in the media, if PPE is invisible on most job sites, an employee will become conditioned to think that PPE is not important for their safety.

Even though we can’t control the media, companies can take a more intentional approach to change their safety culture. If you’re unsure of the state of your culture, start by observing how work is done: 

  • Is PPE always worn or only when someone is watching? 
  • Do your employees intervene when an obvious risk is present? 
  • How often are near-misses reported?
  • How is the communication between management and employees? Or employee to employee?

Safety is so much more than trying to fit into a compliance mold. When trying to improve a company safety culture, start small and improve one thing at a time—you’ll find that often things are connected. For example, being more transparent as a company will subsequently help with employee engagement, communication, PPE compliance, and near-miss reporting. You can take a deeper dive and explore a thorough safety assessment and diagnostic program to uncover what your safety management system is missing. It will also help an employee’s situational awareness. Without a clear picture of what safety should look like in your company, hazards might not be identified in real time, corrective actions would not be taken and risks would not be prevented for the future.

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