Safety Blueprint

September 1, 2011       Melanie Lockwood Herman      

It’s hard to picture a “typical” nonprofit workplace. Nonprofits operate from traditional urban office environments, as well as summer camps in bucolic rural settings and even large warehouses filled with pallets of donated products. A nonprofit vehicle could be a minivan, a tractor-trailer, a forklift or a small bus. With all that variety in mind, it makes sense to go back to basics to improve the safety of facilities, people and the very mission of your nonprofit.

Remember the human factor in safety – A checklist, safety briefing and protective gear are of little value if ignored, misinterpreted, or overlooked by your staff and employees. At the heart of every safe workplace is a team of alert, caring staff. Make sure that staff members know the safety of your nonprofit mission depends on their active participation in safety programs. Also consider how people will be affected before implementing any new safety measures.

Wherever possible, engage a diverse group of staff in exploring the safety implications of new programs or activities, or changes in service delivery strategies or methods. Here’s a start on that checklist.

• Invite feedback…including complaints – Send a clear message that ideas on how to improve the safety of the workplace are welcome. Eliminate barriers to providing feedback (e.g., the dreaded complaint form). Express sincere gratitude to staff members who identify ways to improve safety or address unsafe conditions or practices. Recognize those who come forward as a way of encouraging others to do the same.

• Banish assumptions – Assuming that policies and procedures are understood and followed is generally unwise. A better approach is to ask your staff to help identify impractical policies, poorly worded instructions, outdated processes, and other issues that make it hard to carefully follow safety policies.

• Provide training – Workplace safety training should address general safety topics (e.g., safe evacuations) as well as topics specific to work areas or departments (e.g., warehouse operations, transportation programs, special events, etc.). General topics for all-hands safety training include: the importance of a safe workplace, common workplace injuries, what to do in an emergency, and how to report a near miss or accident in the workplace.

• Look for root causes instead of simple answers when accidents or near misses occur – Research on failures in organizational life suggests that leaders often miss opportunities to learn from missteps because of the tendency to blame mistakes on human beings or look for other “simple” explanations. Dig deeper when an accident or near miss occurs in the workplace. Look for system issues and causes rather than choosing the default option of blaming mistakes on human error.

• Reach out for help – Consider inviting your insurance broker or carrier to visit and inspect your premises and facilities to help you identify opportunities to improve the safety and security of your operations. After a safety visit or inspection make a list of follow-up items with reasonable timeframes for completion. Circulate the list among key personnel and invite additional suggestions and feedback.

Improving workplace safety requires equal measures of commitment and follow-through. And the “basics” of any safety program rarely come with an out of reach price tag. By paying close attention to the human factor in safety, welcoming feedback (even complaints), and refusing to blame the nearest human being when an accident occurs, you’ll not only fortify your aspirations for a safe workplace, but your mission as well. NPT

Melanie Lockwood Herman is executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center in Leesburg, Va. Her email is Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org