Environmental Health Safety

Environmental Health Safety

It’s a Wonderful Life

A running joke throughout the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is whenever George Bailey starts down the stairs in his family’s house, he grabs the ball on the top of the bannister which promptly comes off in his hand. George then looks at the knob somewhat quizzically as if he’s thinking, “I keep forgetting to fix that!”

How many things in our own workplace (or home, for that matter) fall into the category of “we know this needs to be fixed, but it never seems to get done”? Eventually, we walk past whatever this thing is so often, that the need to have it repaired simply fades into the background. We see it so often, we eventually cease to see it at all! Maybe it’s a cracked sidewalk block, or a missing electrical outlet plate, or perhaps something more serious like a missing guard on a saw or other piece of equipment. I’ve heard this referred to as “the broken window syndrome”. Maybe a better way of putting it is “it’s been that way for so long that it’s just the way it is”.

One of the first things I was introduced to when I started at Lakeland was participation in the WAICU peer audit program (Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities). The simple- but accurate- explanation of this program is: several participants from each school were trained in what to look for during environmental and safety audits. These auditors then traded audits at other institutions in an effort to have “fresh eyes” look over what is being done well, and what could use some improvements- both for written programs and for actual field conditions and practices. Many of these auditors were the school’s EHS person, lab instructors, or maintenance techs (anyone was allowed to volunteer); with peers from other schools performing the audits, hence “peer audit program”. A professional firm was hired to coordinate the audits and prepare a report of the findings.

The goal of these audits was to identify environmental and safety needs and have them addressed before something happened and necessitated involvement by OSHA, EPA, etc. I’d imagine that most readers of this blog are employed at manufacturing plants of various fields, and conduct periodic (frequent?) audits or walk-throughs of their plant looking for things that need to be addressed. But as with George and the bannister ball, how often do we walk by unsafe things without truly noticing? It really is amazing what someone who has never been in a particular space before will notice and ask questions about!

It would seem that many EHS professionals in the Sheboygan area know each other, and perhaps even worked together in the past. Why not make a phone call or two and ask a colleague to trade audits? Help each other with an audit (and maybe a lunch!) one day, and visit the other business the following week. Confidentiality questions may- and should!- be worked out. After all, you really don’t want your supposed friend calling OSHA immediately after leaving! This can be solved with a gentleman’s agreement, as no one would arrange this sort of endeavor with someone for whom they hold no trust! But a document can be drafted to protect both persons and businesses, if a higher level of protection is warranted.

During the WAICU audits, we used software designed for just such auditing purposes, but many times with only marginal success- strong wi-fi typically isn’t a priority for boiler rooms. Very soon, it became more efficient to just enter a space and look around- both good and ‘not so good’ things jump out very quickly to a trained eye. Most people now have a mobile phone, so photos of the findings are easy to record, and a small note pad is easy to carry to help keep track of where the photos were taken and what is depicted.

I’ve been involved with this program for about 10 years, and it is capable of turning great benefits. Cooperative audits also foster professional relationships and sharing of ideas. After all- who has time to reinvent the wheel for every need you may have? And hopefully, helping each other find potential safety violations will prevent my personal favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life” quote: “Hey Mary! Ha ha! Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to jail!”

Submitted by Greg Bierman, Environmental & Safety Coordinator, Lakeland University; May 2018