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Spotters: A Critical Element of Site Safety

Many OSHA regulations call for someone on the job site to make sure that people, equipment and the site don’t come together in the wrong way. Generally known as a “spotter,” this person provides guidance so people don’t get hurt and things don’t get damaged.

However, the role rarely gets the respect or attention it deserves. Most people think that being a spotter is an easy job that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower, so the task is often handed to the “low man” on the site, or assigned to someone who’s not particularly busy that day. Either way, the person performing the role gets little – if any – preparation or training.

Not preparing or training an individual for his or her role as a spotter is a good way to set that person up for failure. The fact is, three of the four leading causes of fatalities on construction sites – struck-by accidents, electrocution and caught-in-between hazards – are directly related to situations that spotters address. Despite this, few contractors have established best practices for spotters on their sites.

Spotters are particularly important on utility projects. Take a job at a substation, where crews are working around overhead structures, steel columns and energized equipment. They’re performing tasks in tight spaces and using powerful equipment next to costly, potentially dangerous transformers and capacitor banks, leaving little room for error.

In transmission line construction, rights-of-way may offer little room to work. In open spaces, where lines are being erected or maintained, rights-of-way may cross protected wetlands. Crews may encounter complex terrain, or be forced to move equipment around on mats and temporary access roads. An accidental move off the mat or road can violate EPA requirements.

The most effective way to deal with all those hazards is to use a competent, trained spotter on the job site. Most contractors think of spotters only in terms of backing operations, but that’s merely one part of the role. A spotter serves as an extra set of eyes for drivers, equipment operators and individual workers on the site. Besides making sure that a truck that’s backing up doesn’t run into anything or anyone, spotters pay attention to cranes and other equipment operating under or near overhead power lines. They protect vehicles and equipment that are moving through the site and traversing different surfaces and terrain. They monitor earthmoving processes and pay close attention to the presence of underground utilities and any surface encumbrances that may be encountered.

Anytime a driver or an equipment operator doesn’t have a clear view of the site, is operating around energized power lines or equipment, or is working on varied terrain, a properly trained spotter should be on hand to help – and being a spotter should be his or her only task.

We’ve seen many task hazard analyses that call for spotters, but few that designate who that spotter should be or include specific requirements. If a contractor isn’t going to allow someone to operate an expensive piece of equipment without proper training, they shouldn’t allow the person entrusted to protect that equipment and its operator to serve without adequate instruction.

The spotter must be highly visible, and everyone on the job site should be aware of his or her role. On some sites, the spotter wears a high-visibility safety vest that’s a different color than the vests worn by other workers. The word “Spotter” may appear on the vest. In cooler weather, spotters can wear the type of high-visibility gloves used by police officers when directing traffic. If workers on a site communicate primarily by radio, the spotter should have a handset that can be received by all other radios.

The role of the spotter comes with several important responsibilities, starting with remaining visible to truck and equipment operators when they are moving. If the operator cannot see the spotter, he or she must stop moving immediately and not resume movement until contact has been established. Spotters must be aware of their surroundings and should never walk into the path of a vehicle, moving equipment or a swinging load. They need to scan the ground to become aware of any trip or fall hazards.

Both the spotter and operators should participate in safety pre-planning. They should agree on a standard set of hand signals and use those consistently while working. A pre-movement review of the line of travel will allow all parties to identify potential hazards along the way.

Finally, it is critical that spotters are limited to their single task – and that they stay on task. Construction sites are full of distractions, and it’s all too easy for a spotter to take his or her eyes off the job. A spotter cannot protect people and property while looking at prints, sending a text, talking on the phone or daydreaming. His or her attention must be fully devoted to the task.

We remember all too well an incident that happened on a project several years ago, when a worker who was serving as a spotter became distracted. It was for just a moment, but long enough that he failed to notice the dump truck moving in his direction. That simple mistake was the last one he ever made – and it provided a grim lesson for everyone else on the site that day.

About the Authors: John Boley, CET, CHST, CUSP, is a safety adviser for Safety Management Group. He has worked in the utility industry for nine years, providing safety oversight in transmission and distribution construction.

Jordan Hollingsworth, CHST, CSP, CUSP, is a lead adviser for Safety Management Group. He has provided support for more than $1 billion in construction projects and has influenced more than 1,000 contractors.

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