Answering Interview Questions About Health and Safety
Most employers are concerned about worker safety since injuries or other workplace incidents can impact productivity, morale, and insurance rates, while also leaving the organization vulnerable to lawsuits. Accordingly, it is no surprise that interviewers will ask candidates about their track record of employee safety, particularly when interviewing candidates for management positions.
How to Answer
The first step is to think about occupational health and safety in a comprehensive manner. Consider all the possible threats to the well being of workers in your past workplaces. Of course, physical safety in settings like production, construction, agriculture, mining, and transportation comes to mind since accidents are common.
You should also consider environmental and health threats in industries like healthcare, research, and pharmaceutical/biotechnology, where exposure to disease agents and harmful chemicals can endanger workers. If you worked in a typical office environment, these issues might not be so relevant.
However, there are many other factors to take into account. For example, musculoskeletal damage can occur when workers perform awkward or repetitive motions and other physically demanding tasks. Improper posture while sitting at a desk can also be physically detrimental.
Don't forget to consider psychosocial factors like emotional stress in fields like air traffic control, deadline-oriented pressures in areas like publishing, or occupations where employees must cope with the stress of irate patrons or unruly students. Sexual and other types of workplace harassment can have a profound impact on the well-being of employees.
And, of course, there are the "little" things that matter too, like smoking, drinking too much coffee or soda to stay awake at work, or eating healthy and getting enough exercise. In your answer, you might be able to include something as seemingly minimal as encouraging coworkers to take a walk with you during a break or to bring in a healthy homemade lunch rather than ordering out.
As you formulate your response, the next step is to itemize the actions that you took to address any of the threats to employee health in your past work environments:
- The best approach is to think of three or more scenarios where you addressed workplace safety or health issues.
- Describe the initial extent of safety issues or baseline status of worker safety.
- Then outline any interventions that you made to increase employee well being and any impact that your actions had on the frequency or severity of problems.
Interventions can take the form of worker education, training programs, workplace safety displays, a communications campaign, establishing new policies and procedures, repairing or replacing machinery, requiring protective equipment/clothing/barriers, rewarding safe behaviors, sanctioning offending staff, providing ergonomic devices, or incorporating more breaks to workers' schedules.
- When You Have Direct Experience: For example, you might answer the question as follows: "As you can see from my resume, I currently work as a production manager for a meat packing plant. I discovered shortly after taking on the job that there were several hand injuries from one of the packing machines. I learned from Human Resources that six workers in the past two years had received medical attention or missed work time when stationed in that area of the assembly line. HR staff had interviewed the workers in question and believed that fatigue was a contributing factor. I decided to decrease the amount of time between five-minute breaks from 90 minutes to 45 minutes, placed a safety reminder sign in easy view, and personally reminded the workers stationed in that area before each shift about the need for optimal concentration. During the next year, there was only one incident of worker injury in that area. I also researched an alternative machine that would perform the same function with less risk, and upper management is currently considering my proposal."
- When You Haven't Had Direct Experience: If you didn't have the opportunity to increase employee health in a previous work environment, whether that was due to lack of internal resources or lack of approval from a supervisor, you can still use the question as an opportunity to impress your interviewer. In this case, think of problems you noted and strategies you would have enacted if you had been able to. Explaining the issues you observed and the responses you came up with shows a high level of organizational engagement on your part, which your interviewer will see as an asset to the entire team.