The Cost of Sales

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Eliminating Hazards

Eliminating the hazard should be the first goal in any occupational health and safety exercise.  Failing that, other options in the so-called "hierarchy of control" include substituting a lower-risk process, redesigning a system or process, applying engineering controls, isolating the hazard or applying administrative processes that elevate safe work practices.

Only after those options have been exhausted should the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) be considered. But for many years this was not necessarily the basis of the training provided to sales people in the safety industry.  Even today, some people in the safety supply business still have sales – rather than safety – as their main or only objective.

PPE Sales By the Manufacturers

The Australian safety industry has gone through a period of growth in recent years.  Out of this growth have come some quite large organizations – organizations with manufacturing facilities, buying power, volume sales, national contracts and an ability to select and pay for the best salespeople to sell safety. A number of these large specialist safety houses enjoy annual sales growth in double figures with the largest in Australia exceeding $300M a year.

In the past, safety expertise in such organizations was often developed "in-house" with a focus on the supply of PPE rather than providing a complete occupational health and safety service. At the same time, the customer's instruction has tended to be: "sell me something at the right price".

The Role of the Regional Independents

Regional independents form a second arm to the safety products supply sector.  Here, local entrepreneurs compete with the larger safety houses by providing more personal service.  Their prices are often higher, but local operators capitalize on being the "man on the spot".

Salespeople for the regional suppliers are often local people with some form of sales experience and, more particularly, have an ability to sell safety – possibly because they are former tradespeople who understand the safety products needs of the end user.

Some, motivated by the need to provide better customer service, have undertaken external OHS training on top of the training provided by suppliers/manufacturers.  This has developed their sense of personal integrity but unfortunately, the need to sell and meet budget can still be the overriding factor.

Specialist PPE Suppliers

Engineering suppliers are the third component in the sales chain, competing with the specialist safety houses and the regional independents. They stock and promote safety products that have become part of the engineering supply chain and their salespeople tend to come from the specialist suppliers, safety products manufacturers or, again, from the trades.

Some engineering suppliers have created an entire safety products department within their organizations.  In this sector, safety selling expertise has become paramount as annual sales revenues increase.  To some extent, salespeople, armed with catalogues, have been cast in the role as "order takers".

Selling PPE versus Providing OHS Services

At all three levels, it is rare to have a safety products supplier take on the responsibility of challenging the customer about his need for or choice of PPE – although, at the "total business" contract level, suppliers may be inclined to take a more integrated total products supplied perspective.

Generally, the assumption is that customers know what they want.  After all, some customers have tertiary-trained safety professionals who have researched their management of risk.

However, PPE salespeople often make mistakes simply because they are driven by price, budget and total business perspectives rather than include OH&S principles in the product selection process.

Take, for example, a contract for the supply of a certain type of eye protection.  The contract is a long-term one, rolling over year by year.  It is accepted that the eyewear is the right specification for the type of work being performed, even though a task risk assessment may never have taken place.  The PPE may have been purchased on the basis of price only – a contract that stipulated a five percent reduction in price each year for the next three years.  But the real risk becomes apparent when a worker looses an eye in a workplace machinery incident.  The cause is a small "high impact" particle travelling at over 120 metres per second.  The injured worker had medium impact eye protection rated at 40 metres per second.  

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the positive changes in attitudes of PPE suppliers, but there are still businesses that sell PPE purely as a money making business.  The real issue is that customers tend to view PPE suppliers as experts in their field, neglecting to or unable to question credentials or qualifications of the "expert".

What is needed is a willingness by safety suppliers and manufacturers to apply hierarchy-of-control principles as a service to their customers, putting knowledge, training and real expertise ahead of the "dollar".  Some PPE suppliers – and customers – may not be ready for this sort of approach but legislation, litigation and a strong national commitment to reducing worker risk can be expected to have an impact as a national OH&S system draws closer to reality.  The recent issues involving Peter Garrett and roof insulation are an indication that the various state regulators, manufacturers, suppliers, OH&S experts, employers and employees want to blame "someone else" rather than look at risk and make the "right choices" at workplace level.

The SafetyQuip Franchisee Training Program

All SafetyQuip franchisees are trained to ask questions about workplace risk.  They are trained to look at the assessment of risk and on occasions will refuse to sell a product based upon wrong application, unsuitable choice or simply because there was a simple control measure available that negated the use for PPE.  On other occasions SafetyQuip franchisees will go to great lengths to upsell based upon the higher protection offered.  When faced with the question of protection from asbestos dust in roof spaces, all SafetyQuip franchisees are trained to ask about the methods of dust control including use of water based products.  Why?  If water based products are used then the customer is exposed to electrocution risk and is reminded to turn off all power in the roof space – simple, but who asked these roof insulators about the risk of exposure to live circuits?