Last week, we looked at how systems put in place to keep a facility safe can fail if they’re not properly maintained and reinforced. In this post, we’ll look at 4 common food industry workplace safety mistakes that can be avoided by creating reliable safety and programs in place.

Workplace injuries and health problems pose a serious business risk to companies in the food industry. An injury can result in several different costs for the company. Some of those include the lost productivity from an experienced worker who can’t work and costs related to insurance, staffing, legal fees, fines and reputation damage.

As developers and implementers of ERP software for the food industry, we get a close look at a wide variety of food companies, which means we also see the wide variety of ways things can go right and wrong in a food production facility. Here’s a short list of some of the most common and commonly ignored occupational health and safety hazards we come across.

Inconsistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE)

You carry a complete stock of personal protective equipment for your workers and train them in their use, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the equipment is used properly. It only takes one brief oversight for a worker to contaminate a product, a machine or himself. And where there’s one brief oversight, there are usually more; when occasional oversights are tolerated, they tend to grow into habits and become part of the culture.

To help encourage the proper use of PPE, you can make sure it’s easy and convenient to get to. For example, eye or hand protection can be kept near the relevant machine. Signs reminding people to use PPE can also help. You can also employ spot checks or checklists to help enforce the desired behavior.

One of the best ways to encourage good PPE use is peer pressure, which we’ll discuss more later on.

Poor ergonomics

Many workplace injuries are preventable through better workstation ergonomics. If you see the same injury occurring again and again, there may well be an ergonomic problem behind it. Solving a problem is sometimes as easy as providing better lighting, flooring or work height. Advances in just these three areas have transformed car factories in the past few decades (though some ergonomic problems can be more challenging to solve.)

Engage workers in improving workplace ergonomics. They know where the trouble spots are and often have the best suggestions for improvement.

To that end, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, recently committed to his workforce that he would personally investigate each workplace injury and “go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.” That’s the right attitude when it comes to getting to the bottom of workplace injuries. Go to the problem to understand it better. Your efforts are virtually guaranteed to make a difference.

Incomplete training

One issue we see with some regularity is that workers are trained in the “how” of keeping the facility and themselves safe, but not the “why.” If they understood why a given rule is in place, then all of their own self-preservation instincts would be working in their favor. But if they don’t understand why — if they’re only given a directive — then they can only rely on their ability to remember and follow rules to keep them safe, which isn’t as strong or reliable as their innate wish to not get hurt.

That’s why it’s critical to help workers understand why each rule exists. Why is it important to wear eye protection when operating the band saw? Why do I have to be supervised when I clean out the hopper? Why am I made to use this checklist for a process I do every day and know inside out? What could happen if I don’t?

When workers know the answers to these questions, it doesn’t take much enforcement to get them to comply. One common and effective way of helping workers here is sharing lessons learned on recent injuries and near misses. Lessons learned aren’t valuable unless people know about them and can act on them.

Make the human consequences of non-compliance clear and get your employees’ natural self-preservation instincts working for you. Without that, you’ll get an unwelcome look at their effort-minimizing instincts and a corresponding string of preventable injuries.

As an aside, this approach works for food safety as well as occupational safety. When people understand what listeriosis looks like, for example, they’ll do a better job of policing themselves and each other. Always educate workers on the why behind the rules.

Not developing a safety culture

If you’re doing the above things, then you’re on your way to developing the most important safety-related attribute at all, and that is a safety culture.

The UK Health and Safety Executive says a safety culture is:

The product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management.

Aviation safety culture experts Terry von Thaden and Alyssa Gibbons describe it as:

The enduring value and prioritization of worker and public safety by each member of each group and in every level of an organization.

In an organization with a safety culture, norms dictate that every worker is both a safety advocate and enforcer. Managers send the message that safety and care are real values, then back up those words by demonstrating them every day. Workers feel that they have permission to place their own safety above other considerations, and they pressure each other, implicitly and explicitly, to prioritize safety. That’s the kind of organization, for example, where one worker will tell another to put goggles on. That kind of culture is how the best companies achieve very low rates of workplace injury.

Look again at Elon Musk’s recent reaction to injuries at Tesla. That’s what a safety culture sounds like. Note his personal expression of care and his commitment to action. When every individual in the company takes that attitude, you have a safety culture.

A modern food production operation offers up so many opportunities for injury, the only way to reliably minimize the risk of injury in every part of the operation is to develop a safety culture and the safety systems that come with it. Flaws in these systems, caused by the absence of an underlying safety culture, are virtually always at the root of a workplace injury.