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Recent studies on the influences and benefits of social networks suggest that an establishment looking to improve employee health and safety as well as workplace efficiencies would be wise to respect and harness the power of social networks.

For all the reasons a hospital or construction company might choose to manage their MSDSs online, the benefits of social networks are probably not high on the list. Instead, hospitals or construction companies will likely choose a solution based upon cost or ease of implementation. Similarly, a municipality or manufacturer focusing on environmental health and safety may overlook the part social networks play in the attitudes and behaviors of their employees and in doing so miss an opportunity to improve health and safety outcomes in the workplace.

The Power of Social Networks
These days, the term social network is often used synonymously with popular networking websites like Facebook and LinkedIn. While it is true Facebook and LinkedIn are social networks, they are just one example of a kind of social network. For purposes of this discussion, we will adopt a broader definition and understand social networks to be structures of connected people. Under the umbrella of this more expansive definition, we would understand social networks to include a wide-range of groups and organizations:

  • Business Enterprises
  • Trade Associations
  • Co-Workers
  • Peer Groups
  • Discussion Boards
  • Friends and Family
  • Bowling Leagues
  • The Internet

In the book Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life , Albert- Laszlo Barabasi provides a great overview of Network Theory and powerful testimony on the efficacy of networks. He explains how the Internet and social networking websites have provided a rich source of data with which to study network theory, and says that in today’s world network theory touches every facet of a person’s life. Social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In are impressive examples of social network power and illustrate the principles Barabasi discusses.

Yet, if our understanding of social networks ends with a couple of websites, we miss the pervasive nature of social networks and their influence on everything from how much we weigh to the likelihood we’ll get divorced; we also miss the role they play in workplace safety conditions. Nicholas Christakis illuminated the influential power of social networks in a presentation he gave at the TED Conference in February of this year (posted below).

Christakis sees social networks as living things that move, have a memory, and have a consistency and “a kind of resilience that allows it to persist across time.” In the video, Christakis tracks obesity across a social network and demonstrates how an individual’s sphere of influence reaches far beyond the people an individual is directly connected to and for a period extending beyond their lifetime.

Substitute the dynamic of obesity with the dynamic of workplace safety and we start to see how a social network could influence employee safety. In other words, the relative safety-mindedness of any one person in a company potentially affects the safety-mindedness of the entire company.

Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of OSHA, almost said as much in his recent testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety: “In addition to effective process safety management systems, organizational culture is also a critical component to preventing workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. To paraphrase Professor Andrew Hopkins of the Australian National University and author of “Failure to Learn: The BP Texas City Refinery Disaster,” workplace culture is not just an educational program that gets everyone to be more risk aware and think “safety first.” It means establishing a set of practices that define the organization and influence the individuals who make up the organization. It’s not how people think, it’s what companies do. And it may seem obvious, but it bears emphasizing: Organizational safety culture must start at the top.”

If that correlation between employees is true, then it’s a small leap to envisage how the relative health and safety of one company influences the relative safety of an entire industry. Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Under recordkeeping rule 29 CFR 1904, OSHA annually collects injury and illness data from just over 10% of the establishments under its jurisdiction; the data is then used to target inspections and shape regulation. Hopefully, you have already identified this data collection process as an example of a social network.

The example illustrates how a handful of companies can influence the safety of an entire industry as well as how businesses can inadvertently be part of a social network that brings with it unintended consequences. A high number of fatalities at a small number of establishments could set in motion significant consequences for every establishment in that industry. Fortunately, the data OSHA collects is useful not only for targeting companies for inspection; the data also provides a valuable resource for improving employee safety. If several businesses in your industry are reporting an increased number of injuries from a specific type of incident, then you have an opportunity to reevaluate the training and safety procedures at your own business and to improve conditions before OSHA intervenes.

Recognizing the value of the illness and injury data it collects, OSHA is looking to modernize its data collection process and could require all 750,000 employers and 1.5 million establishments under its jurisdiction to submit data annually, beginning as soon as 2011. According to an item on the Federal Register, OSHA is looking to “…develop a modernized recordkeeping system in ways that will help OSHA, employers, employees, researchers, and the public prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.”

Of course, the prevention of injuries and illnesses is the ultimate goal, and to that end, companies do not have to wait for OSHA statistics to improve the safety of their workplaces. Online incident management tools allow companies to go beyond simply recording employee injuries and illnesses to allowing those companies to record near misses, identify hazardous conditions and then proactively work to prevent recordable incidents before they occur.

For instance, information about near misses for employees doing similar work but working different shifts in different facilities could be combined to identify and address hazards that may have been missed with a paper system since the information may not have been recorded or aggregated. Once you go electronic, you stop worrying about how many incidents and near misses your record, because the process is so easy, and instead you begin to focus on the underlying causes.

Furthermore, electronic solutions make sharing data with OSHA and other regulatory agencies easy. If that data shared with OSHA happens to reflect a safe work environment, it too has the potential to influence the safety of an entire industry. Social Networks and Health & Safety Knowing the way social networks operate can help us understand why things are the way they are, and provides us with a roadmap for using social networks to our advantage, e.g., influencing the greatest number of people in the fewest number of steps.

Here’s a short primer on the structure of a social network. In a social network there are nodes, links and hubs. Nodes are the individual components of a social network – for our purposes, a single employee. A link denotes a connection between two nodes. Hubs are the nodes with the most links. If you want to change or influence the behaviors of people within an organization, start with the hubs.

Major hubs within an organization will likely include managers and supervisors; however, the most influential hubs may exist outside of the management team. When you are enacting change or building consensus, get buy-in from the most visible and popular members of your organization – regardless of their job titles. They are the hubs with the greatest sphere of influence.

Social Networks and MSDS Management
Another example of how a social network can positively influence the health and safety of an organization is in the management of material safety data sheets (MSDSs). Currently, many companies treat MSDS management as an independent activity. Here’s a typical MSDS management system in place at many companies: The safety manager responsible for overseeing the MSDS binder (or binders as is usually the case) determines an MSDS is needed and calls the manufacturer for a copy.

Once the MSDS is received, the safety manager copies the data sheet and adds it to every binder in throughout the facility. In addition, the safety manager must also routinely monitor MSDSs for necessary updates and to ensure the MSDSs on file match the chemicals being used. For a small company using only a handful of chemicals, the above scenario may be manageable. For a large company with thousands of MSDSs spread across several facilities, the above scenario could be a logistical nightmare and make compliance with the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS 29 CFR 1910.1200) difficult.

Online MSDS management simplifies compliance, regardless of how few or how many MSDSs or facilities a company has because companies managing their MSDSs electronically, with a provider like VelocityEHS, become part of an enormous MSDS social network.

Now let’s consider a scenario where the safety manager has the functionality of an online system like the one offered by VelocityEHS: The safety manager determines an MSDS is needed, he or she goes online and adds the MSDS to his or her eBinder from a database containing millions of MSDSs and is ready to go in real time. Furthermore, when an updated MSDS is available, the new safety data sheet is automatically sent to the safety manager to accept or reject. In this instance, the social network is a powerful safety tool because as MSDSs are added or updated to any part of the network, they become available to the entire network *. With an online system, MSDSs are always in the right place at the right time.

Value of “Traditional” Social Networks
MSDS management is one example of how being part of the crowd can be beneficial. When used well, social media websites like Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In are other examples.

Currently, thousands of EH&S professionals are using these and other applications for networking and sharing information online. On Twitter you can find up to the minute information on OSHA news and EH&S job postings. Facebook and Linked-In offer easy access to clients and vendors as well as rigorous conversations on the latest EH&S topics. Even companies reluctant to join the conversations taking place on social networks can get value out of monitoring a handful of social media websites and seeing what information is being shared.

Social Networks are everywhere and are already exerting influence on every employee in every industry, harnessing them can be a powerful way to improve safety conditions and business efficiencies, which in turn can lead to great outcomes for both employee and employer. Please leave a comment below – especially other examples of social networks related to EH&S success. *VelocityEHS allows companies to mark MSDSs as private, thus preventing the distribution of proprietary or confidential data.