Answering Interview Questions About Health and Safety

Job interview
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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. 

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

Anyone who has direct experience coordinating or enforcing workplace / occupational health and safety programs is going to have an edge over other candidates who do not.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. workplaces have witnessed a 60% decrease in occupational deaths and injuries since the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed in 1970.

Nonetheless, more than 5,000 employees are killed on the job (and 3.6 million suffer workplace-related injuries or illnesses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in its ongoing “Safe + Sound” campaign, encourages companies to maintain active on-site safety and health programs.

Employers are always eager to prevent accidents (and their accompanying liability) and to ensure compliance with OSHA mandates. Thus, your interviewer will be interested in assessing your familiarity with safe work practices, particularly if your job must be performed in a hazardous environment.

How to Answer Questions about Health and Safety

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.

The Best Way to Prepare

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. 

Examples of the Best Answers

How you respond to questions about health and safety will depend upon your degree of familiarity with occupational health, safety, and wellness programs.

When You Have Direct Experience

If your previous positions have required you to actively participate in occupational safety initiatives, be ready to share a detailed anecdote to illustrate your ability to find and fix health threats in the workplace.

Use the STAR interview response technique to describe a relevant Situation, the Task involved, the Action taken, and its Results.

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.

Why It Works: This answer is quite effective because it provides tangible statistics, demonstrates the candidate’s ability to analyze a health and safety issue, and shows how she has the troubleshooting skills and ingenuity to come up with successful solutions.

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.

As a line chef, I’ve worked in a few kitchens where there was a lot of staff turnover—and often the new hires were inexperienced and didn’t always follow the safe food handling protocols as they should have done.

I tried to tactfully educate them about the correct procedures when I could, but I really wished that we’d had a formal mentoring program and monthly or quarterly workshops to reinforce everyone’s knowledge of the recommended food handling and kitchen sanitation guidelines.

Why It Works: Here the candidate proves that he is concerned about following established procedures, and has actively thought about how compliance could be improved in a food handling setting.

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

  • Emphasize your experience and your training. If you have formal training in environmental health and safety management, be sure to mention this to your interviewer.
  • Spin the question. After you’ve described your own experience with workplace safety or wellness initiatives, try to inquire about the programs the company currently has in place for its employees. This will both demonstrate your interest in the employer and will give you some idea of the conditions you’ll be dealing with should you be hired.
  • Review common interview questions, along with sample answers. It’s also a smart idea to be prepared with your own questions to ask your interviewer about the job, the company, or the culture.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

  • What do you find to be the most difficult decisions to make? - Best Answers
  • How did you deal with a challenge? - Best Answers
  • How do you handle stress? - Best Answers

Key Takeaways

SHOW WHAT YOU KNOW: If there are specific safety and health procedures that govern your industry (such as safe food handling procedures for restaurant employees), be ready to prove your knowledge of these mandates.

TRAINING COUNTS: Let your interviewer know whether you hold certifications in health and safety, or have won employee awards for your participation in company occupational safety or wellness initiatives.

GIVE A S.T.A.R. RESPONSE: Describe the situation, task, action, and result of a time where you were involved in a safety, health, or wellness program in your workplace. What effect did this have upon your own well-being or that of other personnel?