What You Don’t Know Can Definitely Hurt You
On the job, ignorance isn’t bliss. In fact, it can get you killed.
The world of work is changing, and there’s something new to be learned every day about safety on the job: new hazards, better protective gear, smarter work practices. The trouble is: how can you be sure you have the best and latest information to get you through the day safely?
As part of the union’s on-going mission to improve jobsite safety, Business Manager Tom Dalzell dispatched five members of the Local 1245 Safety Committee to Pittsburgh, PA in April to exchange information with other union members and safety professionals at a gathering of the National Safety Council. They looked at the latest in fall protection, hot stick testing, single-point grounding, arc hazard analysis and fire retardant clothing, among other topics.
They came back convinced that many accidents can be avoided, but worried that IBEW members may not be as informed as they should be about jobsite risks, and that employers are not doing everything they could to reduce those risks.
In some cases, long-accepted safety practices may have been overtaken by new discoveries that have not been communicated into the field. Consider pole top rescue. You may know how to lower a worker in a harness to the ground, but did you know there can be serious health consequences simply from leaving the person in the harness too long?
“We learned that blood pools in the extremities when you’re in the harness,” says Art Torres, a SMUD electrician and member of the Local 1245 Safety Committee. “If you’re in the harness too long and they lay you down too quickly, it can be very dangerous.”
And you might want to double-check the harness itself, says
Local 1245, Safety Committee, National Safety Council, Arc Hazards, “Important and Personal”, Keith Hopp, Mike Gomes
, a Modesto Irrigation District XXX and member of the Local 1245 Safety Committee. “If you’re wearing a non-FR (fire retardant) harness, the harness can ignite and burn and defeat the purpose of FR clothing.”
Fire retardant clothing is a big improvement over clothes that easily combust, but “you have to know how to use it properly,” says Gomes. Did you properly tuck it in? Did you roll down the sleeves? FR clothing has to be clean, but don’t assume you can just toss it in the wash—fabric softeners or bleach during washing can compromise the clothing’s effectiveness.
Arc hazards came in for close attention at the conference.
In doing arc hazard analysis, it’s vital to correlate the radius of the potential hazard with the amount of protection, says Keith Hopp, a PG&E Gas Crew Foreman now working as a Work and Resource Coordinator.
“If you’re in a bucket and there’s a fault the energy goes everywhere, so worker isn’t getting full blast. But when you’re working in a cabinet it’s like shot gun blast—you get the full force of it,” says Hopp, who is a member of the Local 1245 Safety Committee.
“At SMUD we have shirts and pants, coats and sweat shirts, but we don’t have the info of what we should be wearing when we’re kneeling in front of a 12 kv breaker racking it out,” says Torres. A proper arc hazard analysis would provide employees with the information they need.
Safety Committee members, many of whom serve on employer safety committees as well as the union’s, believe employers’ efforts sometimes fall short. One Local 1245 employer has utilized FR clothing for eight years, but offers no training on its proper use. Another employer has discontinued pole top and bucket rescue training. Another employer is not utilizing full body harnesses.
“Management doesn’t track (safety information) as closely as we do,” says Bob Burkle, Silicon Valley Power lineman and member of the Local 1245 Safety Committee. “It’s up to labor to get this information and to get it out.”
The hard truth is that if employees want to improve safety conditions on the job, it often may be up to them and their union to insist on it.
“Important and Personal”
“This got to be really important and personal to us,” says Torres. “The conference got me involved with actually changing something at the job site. The arc hazard assessment and fall protection, I brought those up at our last safety meeting (at SMUD) and said ‘What are we doing about it?’ ”
Burkle says that the employer and the union do not always look at safety issues from the same perspective. When an accident happens, supervisors sometimes take the easy route of simply looking for someone to blame. But there can be more than one layer in understanding why an accident happened.
“It could be a process problem,” notes David Vipond, a Cutwriting employee at Frontier and a member of the Local 1245 Safety Committee. An employee may be conscientious in following the process, but if the process is flawed then the employee could be exposed to unnecessary risk.
Employees have a responsibility to work safely, but management, including top managers, “also need to be held accountable,” says Burkle. To the extent possible, safety considerations should be incorporated into the design process itself, something that requires initiative from management. For example, utilities could inspect new equipment at the factory for possible safety concerns rather than waiting for problems to crop up after it has been deployed to the field.
“We have to continually remind managers that ideas brought forward in a cooperative environment with union labor will always work better than those ideas that are unilaterally instituted by managers. This should be a ‘best practice’ among the utilities,” says Burkle.
Management can also research and try to adopt the best safety practices in their industry. “I think that’s how some companies improve—they look to those industry safety leaders with the best safety record and they ask, ‘How are they doing it?’” says Burkle.
Effective safety measures employ a hierarchy of controls. Probably the least effective—though still vitally important—is personal protective equipment, such as gloves and face shields. Other types of controls, which seek to head off danger before it reaches the employee, include:
- Administrative controls, such as safe job procedures, safety equipment inspections and proper training.
- Warnings, such as signs, backup alarms and horns.
- Engineering controls, such as ventilation systems, railings, and circuit breakers.
- Substitution, such as finding less hazardous materials that can serve just as well.
- Elimination of hazards so that none of the other steps are even needed.
A good example of eliminating a hazard altogether is the refrigerator safety act which mandated the design improvement for all refrigerators as the ultimate remedy for accidental suffocations.
Safety Committee members believe conferences like the one they attended in Pittsburgh can play an important role in keeping safety front and center in the day-to-day lives of Local 1245 members. At conferences like these, says Torres, “we learn things we probably never would have been exposed to otherwise.”
The next meeting of the National Safety Council is scheduled for this fall. In July the Local 1245 Executive Board approved three delegates to attend on behalf of the union.
September 4, 2007