Umbrella safety policy to guide all-campus effort

A new umbrella safety policy approved earlier this year will touch virtually every NIU department and spur creation of function-specific sub-policies across campus.

A joint effort by the divisions of Research and Innovation Partnerships and Administration and Finance, the NIU Health and Safety Policy serves as an overarching guide for development of college and department-level policies and practices.  It assigns responsibility at every level of NIU leadership, and calls for stepped-up reporting of safety-related incidents.

“Our goal is to see every unit have standard operating procedures, every employee be trained and every incident be reported,” said Jerry Blazey, vice president for Research and Innovation Partnerships. “This new policy is the public face of an extensive behind-the-scenes effort that’s been going on for two years, both nationally and at NIU.”

NIU’s move toward a unified safety effort is part of a national movement championed by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).  An APLU panel examined safety practices nationwide, and ultimately issued its Guide to Implementing a Safety Culture.

While the new policy emphasizes that everyone has a role to play in managing safety risks, the policy also outlines how NIU manages safety issues through two offices that focus on academic operations (led by the Office of Research Compliance, Integrity and Safety) and administrative operations (led by Environmental Health and Safety).

“This separate but highly coordinated effort by these two teams is key to delivering the right safety attention to our most hazardous activities,” said John Heckmann, associate vice president for Facilities Management and Campus Services.

“The engineering forge, equipment and props used in theater productions, ceramic kilns, welding labs, camera lifts, woodworking equipment, needles and other sharp objects in clinical settings – the list of potential hazards goes on and on,” Heckman said.

“There are few departments that don’t sponsor activities with some level of risk involved.  We need to make sure that we have plans in place to mitigate that risk, keep people safe, and help us learn from the incidents that do happen.”

One of the key changes that must happen is better reporting of accidents and ‘near misses,’ according to Scott Mooberry, director of Environmental Health and Safety.

“People often hesitate to report things under the false belief that they might get in trouble,” Mooberry explained.

“We hope to dispel that notion and help people understand that it’s only by documenting accidents that we can keep them from happening again or happening in a much more serious way.”

To that end, Mooberry wants to create a new web-based reporting system that will give faculty, staff, students and vendors a place to take note of a potentially dangerous situation or practice.

“We need to make sure we’re providing a safe learning and working environment here,” said Shannon Stoker, director of NIU’s Office of Research Compliance, Integrity and Safety.

“There have been cases nationally where lab accidents have resulted in injury and loss of life.  And beyond the lab, universities execute many operations that present potential hazards.  To promote a culture of safety, we’ll look more closely and think more broadly about how to keep accidents from happening in every environment.”

While many departments have safety plans, some do not, and never before has there existed an umbrella policy covering the entire university – including contractors and subcontractors who perform work on NIU property.

Acting President Lisa Freeman says she hopes the new guidelines will “put safety on everyone’s radar.”

“We’re asking all department heads to look closely at their operations and identify potential risks,” Freeman said.  “With this new policy in place, those leaders will have a place to turn for guidance in establishing their own, department-specific policies.”

For now, the policy will reside on the websites of Environmental Health & Safety, the Office of Research Compliance, Integrity and Safety, and the Office of the President. Eventually, it will take its place at the top of a safety section in the university’s new Policy Library.

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