It’s a hot, muggy day in Missouri. A crew is preparing forms for a foundation that will be poured later, when it cools down a bit. Two employees are pounding in steel support stakes for the forms. They’ve used theses stakes forever, and the heads of the stakes have always looked like mushrooms due to their frequent contact with a 10-pound sledge. Santiago is on the sledgehammer, using all the force he can muster to drive the stakes deep into the earth. Jeff, waiting to hold the next support stake, momentarily removes his safety glasses to wipe the sweat from his brow. Santiago takes one last swing with the sledge and the unthinkable happens. A piece of the rusted mushroom on the head of the stake he is pounding breaks off, ricochets off a rock on the ground and enters Jeff’s left eye, causing permanent loss of vision.
In Georgia, a logging foreman gets his truck stuck in mud. The crew prepares to pull the truck out, using their truck to pull and a 20-foot logging chain as the connection between the two vehicles. The chain has been in their truck for some time and is rated for the intended purpose. They attach the chain to the frames of the two vehicles and start the pull.
It all happens so fast. About 4 feet out from the bumper of the stuck vehicle, a link gives way. Sixteen feet of heavy chain recoils, striking an employee standing by the chain in both knees. After extensive surgery, the employee retrains for work that is less demanding than the logging work he loves. Investigation reveals that the broken link in the chain was severely compromised by abrasive wear and neglect.
What could have prevented these two incidents? In the first incident, it would be easy to blame the injured employee for taking off his PPE, but we all know that PPE is the last line of defense. Good safety systems prevent unwanted occurrences before PPE is needed.
Both of these incidents could have been prevented by an aggressive inspection and removal-from-service program. Below are a few things to think about when reviewing or revamping your inspection program.
Familiarity is the enemy. Too often, human nature takes over, and we get used to hazards that we deal with every day. A few years ago, an electrician died using a defective drill. Due to breakdown of the drill’s insulation, voltage leaked into the operator’s hands when the drill was in use. The crew got used to feeling it. Finally the stars aligned. While the operator was kneeling in damp soil, further erosion of the insulation, combined with the operator’s weakened cardiovascular system, caused his death. A replacement drill would have cost under $100.
We can overcome familiarity by making sure inspectors have precise standards they use for inspections. The standards should include strict adherence to manufacturer specifications. Management should take great care when dealing with tool and equipment costs. Constant harping about the cost of tools and equipment, and providing incentives to save money in those areas, can cause employees to believe they are required to work with defective equipment. Always encourage employees to take defective tools and equipment out of service. It will pay dividends in the long run.
A number of work groups find that having intra-crew inspections is helpful. Sometimes a fresh view is necessary to find defective tools and equipment that crews have become too fond of. It’s not difficult to have these inspections. You simply schedule a time in the yard when selected crew members inspect another crew’s tools and equipment. A little friendly competition helps a great deal in getting employees to pay attention to what they are doing. In the end, all employees become safer by learning what to look for.
Inspection of tools and equipment should be an important part of field inspections by management. When management removes an item from service during a routine inspection for production and safety, it sends a powerful message that safety is more important than anything else.
Above all, employees need to know that using properly inspected, safe equipment is of value to your company. A field manager I know showed up on a critical job site a few years ago. During his inspection, he found that the winch line on the crane they were using was frayed in several places. He took the crane out of service just before they were going to make a critical lift on the job. The foreman complained that it would take them off schedule, and that the delay would considerably frustrate their work plan. My friend asked the foreman how long he had been aware of the frayed line. He admitted that it had been that way for months. The line was replaced, a valuable lesson was learned and the job was competed safely.
Proper inspection of tools and equipment will save lives and prevent injuries. It also will improve our work product as well as our image with our customers.
About the Author: Kelly Sparrow, CUSP, J.D., works as a consultant for Ambient Safety LLC. He has extensive experience teaching safety leadership principles, investigating serious industrial and third-party injuries, and laying safety foundations that encourage employees to form a safety culture.
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