Safety training and the art of compliance

Abram Tejeda
Safety Engineer
Bureau of Street Services
City of Los Angeles, California

As public works managers, there is nothing more important than our employees' safety. Training programs must be devised to ensure the safety of our employees and to protect their health while at work. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency charged with setting and enforcing workplace safety and health standards.

Given few exceptions, OSHA does not specify the manner in which training is to be performed; the methodologies used for training are left to the employer's discretion. However, OSHA does specify content at various times and content type at all times, and always demands effectiveness.

The true test of a training methodology is how well the information is used by the employee, how much of it is retained, and how well is it reinforced. A training class is just the beginning of the road to mere compliance. Employers are required to ensure that their overall Occupational Health and Safety Programs are effective. Training provisions of most standards are stated in performance language, allowing employers flexibility in complying with training requirements. The responsibility for providing adequate training and evaluating the employee's proficiency rests with the employer.

Public works departments are typically responsible for construction, renovation, and the operation of city facilities and infrastructure. These departments build city streets, install sewers, and construct storm drains as well as public buildings and service facilities. The City of Los Angeles' Department of Public Works not only builds streets, but also plants and maintains the City's 680,000-tree urban forest, trimming approximately 90,000 trees annually, and maintains over 290 acres of landscaped median islands.

Construction Safety Orders require that employers establish, implement and maintain an effective Injury and Illness Prevention Program; adopt a written Code of Safe Practices; and conduct "toolbox" or "tailgate" safety meetings, or equivalent, with their crews at least every 10 working days to emphasize safety. It also requires that all workers, including managers and supervisors, have training and instruction on general and job-specific safety and health practices.

Furthermore, OSHA places a continuing obligation on employers to evaluate capabilities of each employee and assure that employees maintain competence at their work. These are also best management practices. An effective, well-established health and safety program is not a list of training topics. Training is not the sole or major element of an overall safety program. OSHA places emphasis on training because it is measurable (completed and documented). Cal/OSHA regulations only establish minimum standards for the workplace (a minimum standard equates to a 60% effort). Cal/OSHA recognizes the limited utility of a safety program that decides to be minimally compliant: "Compliance with these orders may not in itself prevent occupational injuries or diseases, but will, it is believed, provide a safe environment which is a fundamental prerequisite in controlling injuries." (3200)

OSHA required content

  1. Specific content required by the regulation.
  2. Manufacturer's recommendations (as applicable).
  3. Manufacturer's operations, service and maintenance manuals (as applicable).
  4. Content of employer's written program, practices and policies.
  5. Specific hazards related to a process, operation, vehicle, machinery, equipment, etc.
  6. Evaluation of employee's ability to understand and perform their assigned tasks.
  7. Employee access to a qualified trainer to explain technical material and employer-specific requirements.

Common OSHA questions
In order to determine effectiveness, an OSHA compliance officer will ask a series of probing "Basic Response Questions," starting with the training element. Questions typically include:

  1. Who conducted the training?
  2. What information was covered?
  3. How long have you been performing this task?
  4. How often/frequently do you perform this task?
  5. Do you know the contents of the written programs (IIPP, Lockout/Tagout, etc.)? Where can you find a copy of the program?
  6. How do you report hazardous conditions?
  7. Various open-ended questions designed to find out how the employee was trained, content of the training, and how well the material has been implemented.

Depending on the sophistication of the interview techniques, some compliance officers will also ask about common industry acronyms such as "What does IIPP stand for?" or "Can you explain what an MSDS stands for?" or worse yet, "What is a PEL and/or TLV?" It is not uncommon for compliance officers to ask the employee to demonstrate certain required activities as a measure of training.

Unless noted otherwise, any method (e.g., videos, handouts, PowerPoint, instructor, etc.) can be used to transmit information to the employee. The employer has the freedom to choose the desired method of training. It just has to work!

Abram Tejeda can be reached at (213) 473-4261.