Hazards and their associated risks come in many forms, from excessive heat or cold to – you guessed it – snake bites.

I have worked as a safety manager for a large factory in Kansas and for a site in Texas. In both locations, we had to deal with those slithering intruders with rattles attached to their tails.

When I was in Texas, I asked the employees, "What do you do when you see a rattlesnake in your work area?"

They always gave me one of two answers: kill it or catch it and release it somewhere away from the city.

No one ever told me they would just ignore it.

I even asked if they would ever consider just shooing the snake into someone else’s work area? Then it's no longer your problem, right?

When I ask that question, the response I get is usually along the line of “What’s wrong with you? Who would do that?”

Although they reacted strongly to my suggestion, it is common for us to recognize unsafe conditions or unsafe behaviors and just leave them alone.

Catch and Release Safely

Before I get to the point I'm making, I want to give you a little snake handling disclaimer.

The rattlesnake handlers who did the catch-and-release operations had the proper PPE, equipment, and experience to get the job done safely.

(Find out Who Pays for Personal Protective Equipment.)

People raised on Kansas farms are used to dealing with these snakes and they have a respect for them. Snakes raised in Texas respect Texans and are afraid of them. I even believe that if some of my Texan friends were ever bit by a snake, they would just bite it back. I've even been told that when a rattlesnake bites a Texan, it's the rattlesnake that dies.

The rest of us can't bank on that kind of toughness. We need the right gear and training.

Set the Standards for Safe Behavior at Work

The broken window theory is all about acceptable behavior. If windows in a vacant car or building are broken and left that way, soon all the other windows will be broken.

Why? Because not repairing the windows sends the message that no one cares.

It's the same with workplace safety. When unsafe conditions and behaviors go unaddressed, it sends the message that they are acceptable. They become normal. Even though it’s just like not dealing with that snake.

(Learn more about Safety and the Broken Window Theory.)

It's up to managers to define acceptable behavior and conditions. We need a timely response to identified unsafe conditions and behaviors. Once we uncover these there needs to be a sense of urgency. We feel bad when someone gets hurt at work, and we feel worse when they get hurt due to a safety concern we knew about and were slow to address.

You may not be able to address the safety issue immediately, but that should always be the goal. That's why safety committees and safety kaizen systems are so important. You'll want to enlist the help of employees to take responsibility and help drive safety. You don’t want to have only one person (the safety manager) driving safety and slaying dragons – or, in this case, snakes. You want to create a culture that elevates a quick response to safety concerns.

(See The Dragon Slayer: Why Safety Should Be a Communal Effort.)

Tips for Responding to Unsafe Conditions

Train Employees to Inspect Their Work Area

Train employees in the hazards they may be exposed to in their departments and have them do a quick inspection at the beginning and end of each shift.

I have seen employees use simple check sheets effectively to accomplish this. Think of it as your workplace's preflight checklist. It can include items such as:

  • No slip, trip hazards
  • All tools put away
  • Workbenches cleared off
  • Trash emptied
  • Electrical panels, walkways, and safety equipment not blocked

You can leave a note section for extra communication of concerns.

(Learn How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Workplace Safety.)

Keep It Clean

When employees show up for work, they should have a clean, organized, safe work environment.

You want to elevate your workforce's ability to see danger and lower their tolerance for danger. To uncover unsafe behaviors and conditions and not address them can be viewed as negligent.

(Learn more in 5 Things to Consider When Implementing 5S to Improve Safety and Quality.)

Know When to Use a Quick Fix

Use short- and long-term solutions. A quick, temporary fix is better than doing nothing.

You may need a short-term fix for an issue as you work on a better long-term fix, like using caution tape to block off a hazard. Do what you can now and state your long-term solution. Let your employees know you recognize and are addressing the safety concern.

Set a timeline for investigating unsafe conditions and addressing them.

Don't Ignore the Snakes in Your Workplace

You would never ignore a rattlesnake in a work area. So, why would you ignore any unsafe condition or behavior that puts people at risk?

Let's elevate our safety standard.

Snake Update

I noticed one of my Texan friends who would catch and release rattlesnakes for us had a snakeskin wallet. I’m not accusing him of anything, but it makes me wonder. I won’t say anything. Like the snakes, I’m a little bit afraid of these Texans.