The Role of HR in Safety and Compliance
To date, there are 180 federal laws that mandate what companies must do to ensure the health and safety of their employees. State laws add significantly to that number. Legal compliance is time-consuming, but also very necessary, as workplace illnesses and injuries keep roughly 3% of the workforce out-of-commission at any one time—and cost some $171 billion annually.
Whether they want to or not, HR professionals play a critical role in ensuring workplace health and safety. That’s a good thing, as HR professionals are often at the crux of training, compliance, and wellness activities in the organization.
So how can HR leaders prepare their team to step into that role? And what can HR managers do, on their own, to be prepared?
A good way to start is by learning the essential elements of workplace health and safety compliance. Knowing these, your HR department will better understand how they can support workplace safety efforts and compliance.
HR Professionals Have Direct and Indirect Connections to Safety
Sometimes HR’s role in workplace health and safety (and safety compliance) is direct. Sometimes, HR and safety influence each other more indirectly.
Direct responsibility for health and safety happens when:
- Safety training must be implemented
- Procedures are put into place to enforce safe behaviors
- The health and safety professional reports to HR and/or HR is involved in hiring.
Outside of being directly responsible, there are many indirect connections as well. For example:
- When an employee is injured, HR will have to help transition the injured employee back to work, (often with light duty work responsibilities)
- If an organization has multiple incidents, that can lead to high turnover (which also increases the workload for HR)
- If word gets out that a company has a bad safety record, that can make it even more difficult to attract and retain reliable workers.
In short, safety and compliance issues are intimately tied to what HR does. They are HR compliance issues, too. A proactive HR department will want to make sure that its team knows the basic ingredients that go into safety programs, especially as they relate to HR policies.
The Five Essentials Every HR Professional Should Know
Safety and compliance experts identify five essential elements of any workplace health and safety program. (For a full description of these five areas, we highly recommend HSI’s whitepaper The 5 Essential Elements of Workplace Health and Safety Compliance: What Human Resources Professionals Need to Know to Create an Air-Tight System. You can also listen to our webinar, “What Does Health & Safety Have to Do With HR? 5 Essentials for HR Professionals.”)
Those five essential elements are:
- Administrative “Must Haves” like signage and logs
- Set Policies
- Effective Training
- Procedures for Risk Tracking
- Contingencies for Reinforcing Behavior
These include appropriate OSHA signage, the OSHA 300 Log, the year-end 300 A Form based on those logs, and Safety Data Sheets (SDSs). OSHA regulations are very specific when it comes to key items that need to be displayed, logged, or otherwise noted. Often, it is the HR department that acts as a check here, ensuring that the appropriate regulations have been followed.
Having written policies, programs, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and assessments is nothing new to the field of HR...but when it comes to health and safety, there are numerous laws regarding documentation. That said, potential hazards differ from employer to employer, and so it is the responsibility of the employer to determine which specific laws pertain to a given work environment. HR can play an important role in creating and documenting these important policies.
Just as OSHA requires certain written policies, it also often requires safety training—and OSHA regulatory requirements for training are just as specific as they are for written programs and policies. HR professionals must ensure that any employee training programs being purchased, developed, or used do indeed cover everything OSHA requires for a particular subject.
Some of the topics where training is required by OSHA regulations include:
- Hazard communication
- Forklift operation
- Exit routes and emergency planning
- Fire extinguisher
- First aid and CPR
- Respiratory protection
- Welding and cutting
- Fall protection
- Bloodborne pathogens
- Confined space
- Slips, trips, and falls
It’s a good idea to start with a formal training needs assessment, to see what training is mandatory, and what training would be beneficial beyond that. Then, follow best practices for implementing that training and measuring outcomes. Remember: It is not enough to simply hand employees a written copy of policies to sign. Reading a document is not sufficient for giving employees the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe!
Tracking risk is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to workplace safety. While risk tracking has traditionally been the job of health and safety professionals, it is important for HR professionals to be involved in partnership with them.
True, an HR department usually is not staffed by trained health and safety experts. But HR can be a huge help when it comes to coordinating risk-tracking efforts with both internal and external partners. Think scheduling inspections and audits, compiling reports, and issuing safety alerts to employees.
Employers can determine enforcement policies when it comes to workplace safety and compliance, just as any other HR policies. For example, your workplace might already enforce a tardiness policy, or a social media use policy. Just imagine how much more important it is to enforce proper health and safety policies and procedures!
Reinforcing the right behavior starts with new employees. New hires should receive all relevant training before beginning any work that could expose them to risk. Safety policies and procedures should also be spelled out in the employee handbook and reviewed as new employees come on board.
Finally, a big part of reinforcing the right behaviors will also include retraining appropriate individuals. Having a record of who receives retraining, when, and on which topics, will save the organization a lot of headaches should an incident happen.
Putting it Together: HR’s Role in Safety and Compliance
Workplace health and safety should be a core concern for HR departments. While it’s not likely that the HR team is going to run inspections or remediate hazards, it still plays a crucial role in creating the overall safety culture. Creating that safety culture means providing communications, documentation, and training to make safety programs, and the best practices for them, stick.
This should not be a burden to HR, but an opportunity. Employee health, safe workplaces, proper training, and legal compliance should all be things that every organization aims for. By understanding what is required, HR can guarantee that it has a seat at the table when the critical discussions happen.