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How Leaders Can Effectively Handle Hazard Communication

February 18, 2015

safety-signsHave you ever looked at the safety instructions for one of the cleaning products around your house and been a little confused about what some of the symbols and acronyms mean? It is difficult to feel confident that you are using the product correctly when you are unfamiliar with the safety precautions. Now think about how stressful it could be to handle a deadly chemical at work if you do not understand its safety information. Maybe you are one of the 43 million employees across five million jobsites involved in the manufacture and handling of hazardous chemicals and this situation is all too real for you. Accidents and injuries that occur due to hazard communication safety blind spots are 100% avoidable, so let’s take a look at what is being done to reduce this risk exposure to workers, as well as management’s role in building strong safety behaviors associated with the handling of chemicals.

OSHA has recently taken great steps toward eliminating safety incidents caused by the improper handling of chemicals. Specifically, they updated the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to be aligned with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. The HCS requires manufacturers and importers to classify the hazards of each chemical, and to provide employers and employees with hazard information in the form of container labels and safety data sheets. However, no standard classification system existed in America until these changes were made.

The revised HCS now provides a single set of criteria by which to classify chemicals that will be easily recognizable for any other worker around the world. The universally agreed upon classification system removes the potential for miscommunications pertaining to the unique systems developed by each organization, which can greatly reduce the risk exposures of working with chemicals. In fact, OSHA expects this alignment to prevent over 500 accidents and 43 deaths every year. This program was implemented nationally in 2013, and included mandatory employee training on the new label elements and safety data sheet format, so hopefully we will begin to see a decline in chemical-related accidents this year. (Source)

Because injuries and deaths from the mishandling of chemicals are often the result of poor hazard communication, managers can play a pivotal role in improving the safety behaviors of their employees. This is a great opportunity for managers to apply the principles of the 4-factor L.E.A.D. Model of safety leadership. Successful safety leaders:

  • Lay out a vision for reducing accidents to gain employee buy-in to the new system.

  • Embrace change by actively supporting the change and involving employees in the implementation.

  • Act as a coach by thoroughly training employees to be proficient with the new system and providing positive feedback when employees use the system correctly.

  • Demonstrate credibility through proactive efforts to adjust their operations to the new system.

Beyond updating their classification systems to the new standard, managers must maintain effective communication with employees about the safety information for the chemicals they handle and any changes to the handling protocols that may arise so that they have everything they need to perform their jobs as safely as possible. The standard classification system will only reduce the number of safety incidents if the hazard information for a chemical is clear to the employee handling it.

safety training

Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.