Famous last words workers tell themselves

by on February 8, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

Put a live round in a thousand-chambered revolver. Then ask 50 workers to play Russian Roulette. It won’t be long before someone’s number will be up.

While not as clear cut, many workplace accidents would be just as predictable, if workers and supervisors understood the odds involved and the risks they take.

Five warning signs
That’s according to an engineering expert who’s studied the reasons that systems don’t work as planned, Michael Shanok, president of Forensic Engineering, Cheshire, CT.

The problem: Supervisors and workers don’t clearly see the odds are against them.

Fortunately, he’s identified five warning signs that probability is starting to work against a company. If you and your supervisors spot the following behaviors among your workers, you can intervene before an accident occurs.

1. ‘If I’m careful, I’ll be all right’
At one company, Shanok noticed that a few times each shift, a worker ducked under a conveyor belt about 40 inches off the ground, to turn off the machine. Without the shortcut she’d have to walk about 40 feet around the conveyor. But she figured, “If I’m careful, I can make it.”

Shanok asked the company: How long before she misjudges the height and gets her hairnet pulled between the conveyor belt and rollers? How long before other workers see her example and try it, too?

If you have workers telling themselves “If I’m careful I can break this rule …,” take a hard look at the hazard and the rule itself. In this example, it might be worth having an electrician move the on/off switch to the other side of the conveyor. That way, the worker’s not tempted and you don’t tax supervisors’ enforcement abilities.

2. ‘It’s too much trouble’
An older electrician climbed onto a roof to fix a facility’s dust-removal system. As he looked into the system’s electrical cabinet, he wasn’t sure the 480-volt power supply was on or off.

Worse, he’d forgotten to bring a volt meter to test the line. Rather than go get it, he spit on his index finger and tapped the bus bar. Luckily, the power was off.

His supervisor was right next to him at the time. Since the worker was only a few weeks from retirement, the boss didn’t discipline him.

Shanok asked the company: What are the odds that a serious electrical burn will happen at some point in that company’s future?
Answer: Depends. A 50-50 chance in that case, the odds are that worker will do something like that only one more time before getting hurt.

And the example to others is dangerous, too. Bottom line: If supervisors accept “it’s too much trouble,” the accident clock is ticking. No one should be taking 50-50 chances with their lives without a supervisor holding him or her accountable.

3. ‘I can time this right’
An operator of plastics-injection molding equipment would reach into the machine to make sure materials fed into the machine properly. He did this “hand-feeding” during a four-second interval when an automated ram was out of the way.

Shanok asked the company if they thought that the worker could successfully “time” his hand movements for several years. They didn’t think so.

If you see workers “timing” their movements, consider redesigning the work, the workstation or their tools. In this case, the company needed to ask, “Is there a better way than hand-feeding?”

4. ‘I won’t get distracted’
Workers and a supervisor stood at the open edge of an excavation, about 40 feet above grade. The supervisor’s cell phone rang. He took the call and turned his back to the work. That second, a crane swung a load and hit him from behind, sweeping him into the excavation, and tearing his lanyard loose. He fell 40 feet and was severely injured.

Shanok asked the company:

  • Is it realistic to create a rule that supervisors never turn their back to the work?
  • Or should the company forbid cell phones at a work site or work station?

Shanok says each company has to decide for itself whether its rules are realistic.

5. ‘It’s just a small hazard’
A company had a 3/4-inch vertical drop in a well-traveled floor surface. Shanok recommended fixing it immediately; he said that’s the most dangerous possible drop: Workers won’t see it, but it will trip someone about every 5,000 to 6,400 passes. If 100 people walk over it every morning and evening, that’s a trip-and-fall every three months.

Bottom line: Don’t let trip-and-fall hazards remain, even if they look harmless. Odds are, they’ll trip someone in the long term.

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