Sunday, January 2, 2011

OH MY GOD THAT HURTS! Or, The Peltzman Effect and Workplace Safety

Yeah, I tricked you with a fancy title.

I've been thinking today about how dangerous my current workplace (a fast food joint) is. My wonderful and quite careful coworker Cassie just got third degree burns on her hand while cleaning the grill (an action performed at least once, and often twice, a day). Another co-worker got a nasty burn when she slipped on something and caught herself falling... with her entire forearm on the grill.

Pretty much everyone has had grease splatter directly from the fryer onto their eyeball. It's not pleasant.

But apparently making things safer doesn't always make them safer.

It's called the Peltzman Effect. I first heard of it (well, the concept anyway, not the term) from my HR manager at work. I mentioned to him that we don't have any back braces that the crew can use when they unload and put away deliveries. He said to go ahead and have the store manager order some, but not to worry about it too much because back braces sometimes increase the number of back injuries a workplace gets.

The Peltzman Effect
: "When people adjust their behavior to a regulation in ways that counteract the intended effect of the regulation."

The example given by Wiki is people who drive less safely because they have a seatbelt. Or, in the case of my workplace, people who lift with their back more because they're wearing a back brace, which they subconsciously assume gives them superhuman immunity to back injuries.

It seems kinda silly, and its just a hypothetical effect, not a law of physics or anything. But the evidence bears it out. Bike accident fatalities have not gone down since the proliferation of helmets, even though helmets demonstrably protect the head and can prevent fatal head trauma. In fact, as the article linked above mentions, helmet laws pretty consistently increase the number of bike/motorist accidents.

But the solution, obviously, isn't to stop trying. Back braces, when used properly, DO reduce your risk of back injury. The key is for employees to know that they still need to be paying attention, even when using safety gear. This is something to incorporate into OSHA-required safety lessons; every time a piece of safety gear is mentioned, there needs to be a caveat, some mention of still being careful and using the equipment properly.

Honestly, I don't think those safety lessons really do anything; most employees don't read them and since our franchisers don't even provide a copy in Spanish, half our kitchen crew doesn't even know what it's about. Actual safety training, which is supposed to accompany those lessons but often doesn't, is the key.

I can't help but feel, however, that there is something more. Every bit of new busywork you add to a food place decreases the amount of real work done, but there must be some way of incorporating safety training and new innovative equipment without losing productive time and actually increasing safety. I'm not sure what it is though.

(I do know one thing, though. Cassie's third degree burns were the result of a single, small tool used to clean the grill; it grips the scratch pad and has a handle to allow you to move the scratch pad against the grill surface. Its old, so the spikes on the bottom have worn away, which causes the tool to slide off the pad and your hand to jerk forward, often right onto the grill. A $20 replacement. Sometimes, safety is just a matter of making sure things work the way they're supposed to.)

1 comment:

  1. Yes! I noticed this when I worked for a paper company. I was touring a plant where they had bought a big machine from a French company. The machine arrived without any guarding. The Americans asked the French technicians who were installing the machine about the lack of guarding - how did they keep people from being injured on the equipment?

    The Frenchmen replied with disdain, "We do not 'ire eedeeots."