Working Safely

Safety is often in the mind, not the equipment

Jun 1st, 2008

Safety is often in the mind, not the equipment

It’s easy to imagine hundreds of safety problems for employees who shin up ladders on trucks, use sharp tools all the time, or deal every day with electrical problems. And that’s good! Safety should always be in the front of our minds. Utility workers may face more threats to their safety than most, but let’s not forget that safety is a good habit that should be exercised indoors as well as out. If you are a manager who feels he or she should constantly remind outside workers of their safety procedures, don’t forget your own or those of your fellow office workers. There’s electricity indoors, too, and some offices have wire conglomerations that look like nests of vipers and booby traps all over the floor.

The greatest threats to a safe jobsite (inside or out) may be the attitudes that “It can’t happen here” or “Those catastrophic accidents only occur in other places!” or, most frequently, “We can risk it just this once”. Every accident that has hurt a utility worker, project engineer or bystander has been “just this once”; that is all it takes. We all know how careful we should be, so let’s work that way. If you need one last incentive: accidents at your work site are expensive and you cannot afford them. Most safety tips are so obvious that it is embarrassing to mention them, but this is for those who ignore them (because their “just this once” may be today).

Advances in, for example, aerial lift truck design and manufacture have improved performance, saved fuel and made their operation easy enough for less skilled workers to run them, but they are also safer vehicles… if the users follow the manufacturers’ recommendations. There is a service schedule for your machine; find it and follow it. Check fluid levels, lubricate and grease wherever and whenever recommended by the manufacturer. Inspect for leaks, damaged or broken parts before starting the day’s work. Let’s check our equipment before we use it rather than kick it an hour after we’ve started and lose our temper, because that tire went completely flat or that bolt finally fell off.

Know where to find all the safety and control features on the equipment and don’t pretend to understand something that you don’t. With advances in engineering come new operating techniques. Manufacturers like Altec, Terex, TIME, Dur-A-Lift, Auto Crane, Baker Equipment and Palfinger have studied the best methods for using their machines and they make their recommendations readily available. One of our problems may be complacency. Many operators have been working for so long without a mishap that they have developed a sense that either they must be doing it right or that the work really isn’t as dangerous as it seems. Both are common and dangerous misconceptions. Every job marks the beginning of a new safety timeframe.

Most OSHA regulations are common sense and we would follow them even if they weren’t published and official. Wise business practice tells us to learn what needs to be done at our jobsite to comply with those regulations. If reading the helpful publications from the Department of Labor (on paper or on the website) is not your style, get somebody else to study and interpret them for you and your crews. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and ignorance in your field technicians may be your fault, Mr. Manager. You don’t want an accident or a fine; they are too expensive.

Of all the injuries that can occur on the job, those to the head are possibly the most dangerous. Sprained ankles, squashed ribs, twisted knees and broken arms are painful and can cause lasting damage to a person. But think of your head in relationship to the rest of you. You have your brain, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, any of which can be seriously and fatally damaged in an accident. For each part of the head there is proven protection available. Hardhats are an excellent start, of course, and they have won the acclaim and use they deserve, at last. This may be a good time, as the busy summer months get going, to address specific needs for ear, nose and eye protection at the jobsite.

How Do Accidents Happen?

Many accidents – not those strictly medical emergencies you cannot predict – have three common factors. The first is human error, the miscalculation or negligence of a worker. The next is inefficient equipment, machines and tools not kept in good, working condition. The third is the use of poor procedures, either because people don’t know them or because they ignore them as unimportant. Solutions are not difficult. You can make sure that all your equipment and tools are in good working order. You can insist that procedures for safety and efficiency are followed by everybody who works for you. Avoiding human error is not so easy, unless the error is caused by ignorance of good work practice, inadequate training or poor communications between supervisor and worker. Of course, if your utility has somebody who deliberately ignores good jobsite procedures, you’d better, for everybody’s sake, find a replacement.

Let’s go into the office again. Ironically, the chances of being injured in an office accident are about twice those of being injured outside. One of the common accidents is when somebody sits down and the chair isn’t there where it should be. It may seem funny in a movie, but not in real life where we work. Other obvious safety traps include torn carpet, lights with burned-out bulbs, loose steps and stairs, and all defective equipment. It is safer to keep all wiring for telephone and computers away from areas where people walk; some of the most painful accidents are caused by tripping over such obstacles. When you walk through your office, or through the offices of other people, look where you’re going! And do walk, please. There should be no need for racing through offices and departments. Reading messages and papers as you walk is courting disaster. This next advice is not a fashion tip: Watch your drawers! Don’t leave them open. That includes the drawers in your desk and file drawers.

Conditions like slippery surfaces (from spilled drinks, perhaps?) should be corrected immediately. If they cannot be corrected at once they should at least be identified by some kind of marker, for the benefit of those who will pass that way in the next few minutes. Bad moves that are made through laziness must be discouraged. It’s always more sensible to get a step ladder, even if it is 30 steps away from where you happen to be now, when you need to climb up and reach materials stored above head level. Climbing on chairs and desks is not a wise method. These are obvious precautions, aren’t they? They are the kinds of advice you’d give to children but it’s amazing how often the culprits are adults. And let’s repeat it. Just because you’ve never actually had a serious accident doing things the wrong, unsafe way doesn’t mean that today will not be your unlucky day.

Many of our accidents are caused by our deciding to take a short cut to completing a task. That could be carrying too much in an office or not bothering to adjust the safety harness outside. “It’s only a short job. What could happen? I saw somebody do exactly the same thing the other week and nothing terrible happened.” More dangerous that this corner-cutting philosophy may be the successes we’ve had when we’ve ignored sensible safety procedures. Most of us have taken unnecessary risks of some sort and gotten away with them, like that time when Jack stood on the trolley with wheels … no, you shouldn’t hear about that. In safety matters, bad example is dangerous; it may be fatal. If you feel that those who are concerned for your safety at work are inveterate naggers, be thankful. It takes less time to do the job right and safely than to recover from an accident.

If there is one ingredient that makes the safety recipe more difficult than usual, it is work in confined spaces. For many workers, this is not a daily challenge, but you do still hear of jobs where access to underground utilities may be at the bottom of a 25-foot ladder. Talking and reading about work in confined spaces lead me to believe that the critical action is to know beforehand what your approach to the work will be and, possibly more important, what you will do if there is an accident in the confined space. With that 25-foot ladder, for example, what happens if the worker falls? Does he have fall protection equipment? Can he rescue himself? How will fellow workers get him back to the surface? Are there other workers at the site? This is not a topic for this general article, but do you know all the rules and regulations about work in confined spaces, especially when there is a possibility of hazardous air? This may be quite rare for most utility workers and contractors, but we do need to know procedures to follow. Do we ever send in one worker alone? Without support in close attendance? I think the best advice I ever received about situations where somebody has been incapacitated in a confined space through gas or other hazardous air is… Don’t rush in to the rescue! Statistics have shown that would-be rescuers are as likely to suffer and die if they are not experts, even if they would be heroes or heroines.

Last words. Never let safety take a secondary role in any of your work, inside or out.

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