“Don’t ask, don’t tell” could be the motto for employees in paint manufacturing and related industries, when it comes to seeking safety information and voicing concerns, a new study concludes.
Paint workers are resigned to silence about the daily chemical risks they face, because managers ignore their input when developing safety programs, the study finds.
Just as bad, workers seldom ask managers for safety information because they fear—sometimes correctly—being punished or looking incompetent.
“You learn a lot from trial and error—preferably
from someone else's trial and error,” one worker
told the research team led by Ramona Hambach,
of the University of Antwerp.
So concludes “Workers’ Perception of Chemical Risks: A Focus Group Study,” published recently in the journal Risk Analysis.
‘Resigned to Accepting Risks’
“Workers’ perceptions with respect to health and safety at work are rarely taken into account when considering the development of prevention programs,” report the authors, a group of Belgian public health researchers.
Although workers “are concerned about the long-term health consequences” of their jobs and “perceive the threat of chemical risks as high,” the researchers report, “they are resigned to accepting the risks.”
The study, conducted with Belgium’s External Occupational Health Services, is based on detailed questioning of seven focus groups of blue-collar workers. The participants face daily chemical exposure risks in their work for large and medium-sized paint production plants, as well as plants that make cleaning agents and surfactants.
The findings raise several red flags regarding safety.
‘Why People Behave the Way They Do’
Millions of workers in coatings and related industries are exposed to chemicals daily and thus play critical roles in safety decisions and practices, the study says. Yet, “[workers’] perceptions of chemical risks at work are rarely taken into account while considering the development of workplace prevention programs.”
Lack of communication between workers and
management was blamed in part for a deadly
2008 blast at a chemical plant owned by
Goodyear. Researchers say the problem is
In many workplaces, when workers do not use personal protective equipment or take other appropriate safety measures, “the management is prone to interpret this as a lack of discipline and to rely on sanctions to change the behavior of individuals.”
This leads to distrust of managers and unwillingness to ask questions or raise issues, the authors said.
They recommend that management address safety by first understanding “why people behave the way they do.” For example, are workers noncompliant because they do not know the rules, do not have the proper equipment, do not understand the risks, or another reason?
“After all,” they note, “understanding how workers perceive risks may have important implications—not only for their health and safety, but also for the development of strategies for health protection and safety at the workplace.”
Learning from Trial and Error
The researchers report a variety of repeated themes among workers, including misperceptions of hazards, lack of information, acceptance of risks, and distrust of safety and management personnel. These themes have been confirmed time and again in other studies of workplace safety, they add.
Regarding lack of information about hazards, these workers’ statements were typical:
• “We stick a rag in and wait to see whether it gets torn before we put our hands in.”
• “You learn a lot from trial and error—preferably from someone else's trial and error.”
• “[You learn about toxic products] by smelling or feeling; sometimes also, after a few less severe accidents, you will know that a product is riskful.”
Workers said they shunned Material Safety Data Sheets, labeling systems and other formal information sources because they are “difficult to understand and not user friendly.” Other studies have also found that MSDS do a poor job of informing workers, the authors note.
Among the comments:
• “The factory does use danger codes, but only very few workers understand them. … Nothing has ever been explained to us. … The terms used are so specialized that I can't make head nor tail of them.”
• “We are told to wear gloves, but why? They don't tell us why.”
• “It's a much better idea to ask those people who are actually doing the job for information, rather than just sitting at a desk. The folks working on the shop floor have a different view and have more experience.”
Workers are also resigned to the dangers of their jobs:
• “You simply don't think about it. We work with chemical products all day long. If you constantly worry about the risk of getting sick, you won't enjoy your job any longer.”
• “Although toxic compounds are labeled, over time you don't pay attention anymore.”
• “You can't refuse to work, either. You just have to try to make the best of it and get the job done.”
Some workers admit frequently working without PPE because they find it uncomfortable:
• “I’ve had splashes of paint drops in my eyes countless times—usually, while I was scraping the walls of the vat without a face mask. But do you honestly think that I’m going to wear that heavy mask every time I have to scrape out the vat?”
• “The protective gloves are too warm and clumsy to work with.”
• “The safety glasses are painful to wear and steamed up from heat.”
• “[Management] always take the cheapest PPE, such as work clothing with low air permeability.”
Distrust of managers and safety advisers runs deep, and managers do not set a good example, workers say:
• “The other day, we had a problem with a product from country X. In the beginning, we had stomach pain and we were ill, but the occupational physician brushed it off as if we were making it up. …
“People were falling ill, and the occupational physician just laughed it off. But they did invest in a ventilation system, so I guess the situation must have been dangerous … but we still don't know what's in the product and we’re still working with it.”
• “You get a reprimand for not wearing your safety glasses, but when the ventilation urgently requires repairs, that can wait.”
• “We know nothing; they just let us get on with it. We should ask, that's true, but surely it's not up to us to ask what and how when we first get here.”
• “Usually, if a worker puts forward an idea, no one listens. You mention it to your boss, tell him about it, but it never gets taken any further … or at least not until an accident actually happens.”