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HR’s Role in Safety Compliance and Risk Management

Published Friday May 18, 2018

Author Amy Cann

Safety at work needs everyone’s full attention. When it isn’t a priority, it can be costly, both in human life and to the bottom line. Companies that fail to stay compliant face fines, and their reputation can suffer. More importantly, it puts your people’s health and safety at risk. For example, on Jan. 5, a Massachusetts company received multiple citations and was fined $212,396 as a repeat offender after one of its employees died on the job site. Management failed to instruct employees to recognize and avoid unsafe conditions.

Making the workplace safer is a priority for many businesses, but the responsibility of doing so can vary depending on the size of the organization and the industry. Safety compliance and risk management may be handled by the human resources department, a sole HR practitioner or an office manager at your company. This makes financial sense if you are a small employer with less than 15 employees or in an office environment.

Whoever is handling your compliance and risk management will need to learn the applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Department of Labor (DOL) regulations for your industry and size, though. It is not something that can be added without extra work and education. A safety consultant may be a good option to come in and perform a safety audit, policy review and development, be a resource and get you on the right track.

However, in larger companies and certain industries, such as construction, a dedicated onsite safety professional is necessary for thorough oversight and leadership of this important function. 

Organizations are charged with providing safe and healthful work conditions for their employees under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

There are many OSHA regulations and state DOL safety regulations to learn and apply.

Reporting Structures
A professional immersed in the safety field will most likely have dedicated resources, in-depth knowledge, time to stay on top of changing regulations and interpretations, and the ability to be proactive in the field or manufacturing floor with his or her workers.  

When a safety professional is on staff, he or she may report to HR, to a senior manager or to the CEO.  In some companies, safety reports to operations, but this is never recommended as the likelihood of conflicts is high. This applies in the same way that quality should not report to operations. Both functions – safety and quality – need independence from the subject of their work.

Shared Objectives
Regardless of the reporting structure, HR professionals and safety professionals share many of the same objectives for their organizations, including:

• Legal compliance with federal, state and city government;

• Creation of a strong culture of teamwork and support;

• An efficient, productive and safe work environment;

• A trained workforce with continuous improvement;

• Retention of experienced workers;

• Control of costs and liability;

• Employee participation with ideas and solutions;

• Shared responsibility and individual accountability;

• Engaged, supportive leadership involvement.

Functional Overlap
There is also overlap in certain functions, such as policy development, training and workers’ compensation management, as well as a strong connection with harassment and bullying prevention, performance management and promotional opportunities. A safety-minded culture creates the best risk management, and it needs to be supported across rules, individual assessments, compensation plans and people in supervisory roles.

For example, if an employee is productive with strong technical skills, he or she will often be considered for promotional opportunities. But what if he or she is not particular about following required personal protective equipment rules? For example, he is often found not wearing safety glasses? Or she tends to skip a safety step here and there in the interest of time?  If this person is then promoted to a supervisory role – without a strong safety philosophy – what kind of example does that display for subordinates? What kind of training will they focus on?

Another example is an incentive program designed to raise productivity that could emphasize production over safety. My grandmother’s old adage, “Haste makes waste,” comes to mind. Not only do accidents result in lost work time, workers’ compensation expense and the potential for an OSHA and/or DOL audit, a belief that management does not care about their workers’ health and safety can arise. Once workers feel they are not your priority, you’ll see everything else slip.

Partnership & Coffee
Given the shared objectives and overlapping roles, human resources and safety would be wise to partner together to support each other as well as the people they are charged with caring for and their organization’s long-term viability.   

If you currently have a bit of separation with each other (or a glacier), I encourage you to reach out and invite the other for a coffee and collaboration. If you have butted heads before, acknowledge your history, but emphasize your desire to start fresh.

Together, you’ll have more impact when you are on the same page working in the same direction and making a business case for organizational changes. There is a quote by poet Mattie Stepanek that goes, “Unity is strength, and when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.”

Amy Cann, MBA, SHRM-SCP, SMS, is president of Human Resources ROI, LLC, an HR consulting firm located in Portsmouth. Visit for more information.

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