During onboarding activities of new employees, I remind each new hirer that they have a superpower. It is a superpower that the current employees do not have, as they lost it by succumbing to the repetition of scenes in their work area. What makes their superpower unique is their clarity to foreshadow forthcoming safety incidents, recognize misalignments to recent safety training, and glaring missed opportunities for best practices based upon their previous employer. During the onboarding, I beg them to find the courage to voice these observations because after about 90 days, their superpower fades, and they become more accustomed to their work environment and practice. They then become like me and every other team member who must rely on the designed habits of others to disrupt complacency.
From a safety perspective, multiple models exist to measure, reduce, and maintain risk at acceptable levels. Tools such as ANSI/ASSP Z590.3, ANSI/ ASSP Z10.0, NIOSH, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) all have similarities to achieve an acceptable level of risk. Each one recognizes that personal protective equipment or PPE is always at the bottom of the hierarchy and should be the last resort to reduce risk.
I saw a picture the other day of dozens of ironworkers more than a century ago assembling a girder for a bridge in Pittsburgh at an unnerving elevation above a rocky terrain. The more I stared at the picture, the more I saw unsafe acts that made my stomach turn. But 100 years ago, the hazards were acceptable. Whether these actions were from a lack of regulations, dispensable labor, or leaders prioritizing production over safety, these unsafe acts were evident to the modern eye.
A first-day objective of a new hirer is to vocally work from the bottom of the safety risk hierarchy and go up as they enter their new workspace. They have gone through the virtual coursework and dabbed into some on-the-job training to begin appreciating the layers of engineered safety solutions. However, leadership must understand that this takes time. Just teaching someone about overhead cranes on day three of their onboarding fails to showcase the respect an overhead crane deserves. Consider a recent new hire who spent ten years in nail salons. How could they even grasp the intensity required to respect a 200-ton overhead crane?
Regardless of how familiar a new hire is with their new work environment's assets, we must leverage our new hirer's voices and superpower to seek out misalignment to the risk hierarchy. We want our new hires to come away from the onboarding as an industry leader on the last layer of the risk hierarchy. Being recently trained on how PPE should fit and when required to use, the new hire becomes the most astute at recognizing misalignments.
When we empower new hirers to use their superpower to see PPE not being utilized properly and combine it with an obligation to disrupt the complacency, we then become safer. From this expectation, we can make the other layers of risk hierarchy, such as mitigation and controls, stickier. When PPE is casually respected, the more substantial layers of risk fail to garner the appreciation required to make the workspace safer.
On your next gemba walk, challenge yourself to dig into your archived superpowers and focus solely on the perfection of utilizing PPE. See how tight a harness is on a person as they work from an elevated platform. See if the person watching someone grind with their face shield down is demonstrating the same level of respect to the hazard with their face shield down. Hazard prevention works in the sequence of the risk hierarchy by eliminating hazards and substituting them with engineering controls, administrative controls, and PPE. Empowering new hirers to recognize PPE misalignments allows them to respect the hierarchical layers above. Leverage the superpower before it is gone.