The Ex-Cop and the Handrail
During my eight years in law enforcement, “officer safety” was never far from the minds of my partners and I. For us, officer safety revolved around the idea that anyone you meet on the job might try to kill you at any time. Many behaviors that seem strange or paranoid to citizens are trained behaviors officers believe will minimize the potential for bodily harm. When I transitioned into my current role at ORR, I experienced an entirely different angle on safety. The fears weren’t gang members, terrorists, or bank robbers; instead, people talked about falls, slips, trips, and visibility.
One of the first safety lessons imparted to me at ORR was that, when using stairs, always maintain at least three points of contact, meaning, always use the handrail. I thought this was quaint at first. There’s no argument that using a handrail isn’t technically safer, it just seemed so unnecessary 90% of the time. However, I noticed both our safety director (frequent blog contributor Steve Ellis) and our CEO took it very seriously. So, I started using a stair handrail for the first time in my life.
At first, it was a conscious effort. As a veteran stairs-user, I certainly didn’t need to use the handrail; rails were just for less careful people, right? Over time though, it became a habit. I found myself subconsciously shifting my notepad and laptop under one arm so the other was free for the rail. What was once an effort became automatic - not because I saw anyone fall down the stairs, not because of some gruesome training video, but because, day in and day out, it’s just what I did.
This brings up the big question that keeps safety directors and HSE managers up at night: how do you get your workers to buy into safety procedures that seem unnecessary or fussy at first? How do you get a jaded 33-year-old worker (who thinks safety means not being gunned down on the streets of Los Angeles) to care about using a handrail?
As I reflected on the question, a few crucial points came to mind:
Every day, I saw my CEO, safety director, vice presidents, and managers using the handrail. This may seem like a minor thing, but good workers watch and mimic their superiors, both for career advancement purposes but also because company culture just naturally trickles down that way. Leaders in a company set the tone, whether they want to or not.
There is a coherent, articulable reason for the handrail procedure. In fact, it’s so self-evident, anyone tempted to argue is going to feel a sting of embarrassment trying to spin their way out of such a common sense, non-invasive policy.
I respected the people who initiated the procedure, but more importantly, I trusted that they genuinely wanted to prevent injury. Worker safety is such an all-encompassing part of conversations and decision-making at ORR that, for me, policies like this never feel like rules for the sake of rules.
I knew someone would call me out if they saw me not using the handrails. It was never demeaning and never malicious, but if someone saw you skipping up the stairs with two hands on your coffee cup, they were going to gently remind you about three points of contact. After a few months, I started doing it myself!
Lastly, I was made to feel a sense of ownership in the safety culture at the company. Beyond grim visions of broken legs or sprained backs, I came to understand that a company safety record had real consequences. Certain organizations won't do business with companies who have too many OSHA recordables. Insurance can skyrocket. Knowing these things helped me internalize the fact that an injury might not just affect me, it might cost other people their jobs.
That’s a lot of words about using handrails on stairs, but I believe the issue is bigger than that. There’s a common refrain I hear among safety directors out in the field: “PPE should be a last resort.” For that to be true, engineering controls have to be in place to minimize the potential for workplace injury, but, more importantly, a culture has to be in place that locates safety first and foremost in the minds of workers.
If you’re in charge of keeping your fellow workers safe and questions like these keep you up at night too, reach out to us. ORR Safety is staffed with people who eat, sleep, and breathe worker safety. Invite us over for a site walkthrough or a hazard assessment and we'll help you find proven ways to prevent injuries to your workers that go far beyond just buying equipment, because we know culture is upstream from true safety.