Protecting Your Employees

May 01, 2009
Written by Michelle Brisebois
The spring retailing season is right around the corner and if you’ve worked in this sector for a while, you know it’s a hectic and tiring time. Unfortunately, these are two factors conducive to workplace injuries. Workplace safety may not be as glamorous a topic as marketing or strategic planning but its role in keeping your business healthy can’t be underestimated. If a member of your team becomes hurt, it’s sad on a personal level because you care about them. It’s also a negative for your business since it leaves the team short staffed for potentially long periods of time. You’ll be especially vulnerable during the spring rush because the pace of the season’s demands means injuries are more likely. Being short staffed at this hectic time can make meeting your sales objectives more difficult because customers won’t get the benefit of your full service capabilities. Keeping your team safe is tantamount to keeping your business safe.

While workplace safety may seem to be a complicated subject, it’s not necessary to hire consultants or high-priced experts to establish a program. The best starting point is to list each position in your company. For each role, assess the job for its exposure to risk. Does the position require lifting? Could this person be exposed to harmful chemicals as they perform their job? Do they work with equipment that could injure them? Once all of the risks have been identified, make sure that the appropriate procedures and equipment are in place to prevent injury. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board website ( has many wonderful tools to help businesses complete a self-audit of their safety policies, but here are a few key areas to focus on.

Physical safety
In the province of Ontario, muscular/skeletal disorders (MSD) represent 42 per cent of all lost-time claims and lost-time claim costs. They also represent 50 per cent of all lost-time days. Causes of MSD pain usually arise from poor body mechanics, sustained or poor postures, forceful exertions, stressful working and living habits, and loss of flexibility and physical fitness. Good body mechanics can be based upon a few key principles: keep weight close to the body, maintain the spine’s neutral curves and reduce spinal twisting.

Remind your team members to keep the loads they’re lifting close to the body as this technique reduces the load by a factor of 10. In other words, 10 pounds becomes 100 pounds on the back when it’s held at arm’s length. Also encourage your team to test the load prior to the lift, to plan their path and keep the area clear, keep feet hip width apart and to use legs and hips (not the back) to complete the lift. Make sure everyone lifts with a firm grip, head up and shoulders back, a smooth lifting action and to communicate with a partner when lifting together. The most important thing to keep in mind when lifting is to reduce spinal twisting. This can be done by ensuring that your feet are pointed in the direction you will be moving. It may seem more efficient to lift a box and then twist to place it on a shelf but this can strain your spine and increase the likelihood of injury. Instead, instruct your workers to turn their feet along with the direction of their hands when moving heavy items.

You also need to protect the workers who spend long periods of time on their legs, working in a greenhouse or tending to customers. This puts a lot of strain on the back and poor posture can exacerbate back problems. Prolonged standing tires muscles in hips, lower back and abdomen. The trick is to keep knees flexed but not locked in place. Make sure you remind your team members to move around regularly and to stretch. A small stool or old phone book under the work bench will provide an ideal resting place for one foot – alleviating some strain on the lower back. When on the phone, it may be tempting to cradle the receiver against one’s shoulder while fielding customer inquiries but that will be very stressful on the neck. Use the non-dominant hand to hold the phone or use a hands-free feature on the phone while writing at the same time.

Chemical safety
Working with plants will put your team in contact with a variety of tools and chemicals. Recommended precautions include wearing leather gloves when working with wire and tools, not using cutters with broken or loose handles and using spray paints and aerosols outside of your operation. Make sure the cap is replaced on chemicals right after using them as well as discarding any containers with cracks or leaks. Review the meaning of the symbols on hazardous chemicals and make sure employees follow the instructions on the label and in the corresponding Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each chemical product such as fertilizers, pesticides or plant foods. Make sure each employee has protective clothing such as neoprene gloves, steel-toed rubber boots, shoe covers, rubber aprons and protective eyewear when they’re handling any chemicals labelled as poisonous. Avoid using protective clothing or equipment that has split seams or other signs of visible damage. Remind your team to wash their gloves before removing them using cold tap water and normal handwashing motion. They should also always wash their hands after removing the gloves. Ensure that you state in your materials handling policy that employees are not to use chemicals from unlabelled containers. It’s also a good idea to use a rubber cradle when transporting unpackaged, glass bottles of chemicals.

Personal safety
If your team members are making deli-veries make sure your vehicle fleet is in top mechanical condition and that your drivers are insured and have clean driving records. Send them in pairs for home deliveries to help shoulder the physical load and as protection for each other. Make it clear to your team that their safety comes first and that they shouldn’t even consider any heroics should there be an attempted robbery.

Keeping your customers safe is also part of the workplace safety process. Hoses are a necessary part of greenhouse operations but they’re a disaster waiting to happen if they snake across customer pathways. Make sure they’re safely tucked away. Also be careful when stacking plants, putting up hanging baskets or placing product on the shelf. Check that the products are stored securely to prevent them from falling on an unsuspecting passerby. Should a customer become injured, you’ll want to ensure that the phone numbers for police, ambulance, manager and a responsible alternate who can get there quickly if needed, are clearly posted where everyone can easily see them.

By implementing a workplace safety program, you’ll automatically decrease your chances of an injury. Safety is defined as the freedom from danger, risk, or injury. The key word here is “freedom” – freedom to focus on growing your business and most importantly enjoying your business.

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