OSHA Compliance: It’s More Than Just Worker Safety

By Richard Best 

Organizations across all industries are required to follow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations in order to support a safe and healthful workplace. For healthcare facilities, compliance efforts span everything from safeguarding environmental conditions to preventing hazardous materials exposure to ensuring ergonomically correct procedures. Although OSHA focuses on preserving worker safety, the precautions housed in the standards can—and should—extend beyond employees, offering downstream benefits in terms of better patient care. Following are a few examples of how consistently meeting OSHA requirements can impact more than just staff.

Preventing patient injury. It stands to reason that a safe and healthful work environment will not only limit staff injury but also avoid hurting anyone else entering the facility, including patients and visitors. Consider an organization that keeps its inside and outside walking surfaces clean and clear of obstructions. In the winter, the facility promptly removes ice and snow from external surfaces. Throughout the year, the organization is diligent about quickly mopping up spills and repairing loose floor tiles or torn carpeting within the facility. This organization not only ensures its employees do not slip, trip, or fall, but also prevents patients and visitors from injuring themselves. Likewise, an organization that has sound, reliable processes for sharps disposal (needles, scalpels, and other instruments) can make sure patients and staff do not experience needlesticks or other injuries. This can stop inadvertent exposure to dangerous pathogens, which could cause serious illness or readmission events.

Limiting medical error. Avoiding patient injury is not the only useful byproduct of a robust OSHA compliance program. Organizations can also head off inadvertent medical error by ensuring their staff remains healthy and at work. For instance, what if an employee key to patient care is injured and has to take a leave of absence to recover? Depending on the situation, the facility may have to call in a temporary worker to replace the injured individual. Even if this person can get up to speed quickly, he or she will not be able to duplicate the relationship the original staff member has with patients, and it could take a long time before the temporary employee reaches a similar level of familiarity with the organization’s culture and processes, as well as with specific patients. In some cases, the organization may not even be able to temporarily replace the injured worker, forcing it to operate short-staffed. Both of these scenarios can increase the chances of medical error and put patients at risk for subpar care or adverse outcomes.

Maintaining a good reputation. Although OSHA can only penalize healthcare organizations for violations related to staff safety, patients can hear about these penalties and form negative opinions of a provider. Most people are familiar with OSHA or at least understand that receiving an OSHA violation is a bad thing. A facility with a spotty, inconsistent compliance record may tarnish its reputation, causing patients to think twice about visiting the facility and seeking care. This can also impact the health of patients, should they elect to receive care from an unfamiliar physician out of mistrust of their regular doctor’s facility. In today’s climate of consumerism, organizations must do everything they can to preserve their good name and keep their patients happy and healthy. They cannot afford a slipup in OSHA compliance.

Keeping staff members—and patients—happy. Imagine going to work every day in an unsafe environment, worried, for example, that you will injure yourself due to ergonomically poor processes or become exposed to dangerous chemicals. Depending on the degree of risk, such worries may cause staff members to quit, call in sick, or exhibit low morale and enthusiasm while at work. Patients can pick up on the negative feelings of a dissatisfied staff member, and this can give them a bad impression of the care they’re receiving. Conversely, if employees feel an organization cares about their health and well-being and offers an environment that is clean and free from hazards, they will be more enthusiastic about reporting to work and performing their job. According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, providing a safe work environment is key to ensuring employees find joy and meaning in their work—such an environment not only improves their performance but also results in safer patient care and better clinical outcomes. When organizations eliminate physical threats to safety, the environment becomes an effective tool for fostering staff enthusiasm and enabling better patient care, instead of a liability.

The examples above demonstrate that complying with OSHA does more than preserve the health of workers. It is a key element in cultivating patient safety and promoting quality care. Consequently, organization leaders should be fully aware of these standards and how they can impact everyone entering the facility, including patients. Taking a page from Paul O’Neill’s book—former U.S. Treasury secretary and CEO of Alcoa—practice leaders must be committed to ensuring a safe workplace at all costs, and this must go beyond lip service. A tangible way to demonstrate an organization’s commitment is to focus on effectively and consistently meeting OSHA requirements.

The compliance effort should not be something delegated to one individual or thought about once a year. Even for smaller organizations, such as solo physician practices and small medical groups, OSHA adherence should be a top priority. Those facilities that make a serious commitment to observing the standards—taking a collaborative approach to understanding the regulations, assessing the current state versus what’s required, crafting targeted and detailed policies, and providing comprehensive education—are more likely to encourage awareness, mitigate risk, and sustain an environment where all who enter, including patients and staff, are safe.

Richard Best is the technical director/corporate director of OHSA compliance for Stericycle, Inc.