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My Rocky Start In Occupational Safety

Updated: Feb 16

Encounters That Made Me Start To Respect Occupational Safety

Close Encounters of the Acetone Clean-Up Kind

If I had to choose a place to start, I'd have to say it would be the near miss I had at my first manufacturing job. Well, it was more of an unsafe act and condition. See, I listened to a co-worker on using a shop vacuum cleaner to clean up a spill of industrial grade acetone. It was particularly stupid on my part because I have a degree in chemistry. When an engineer told me of the danger, the next day, it really made me stop and think.

The reason it was dangerous, is that shop vacuum cleaners typically have brush motors... that produce sparks. Acetone is a flammable, fairly volatile substance. So, there was the real possibility that the brush motors could have ignited the acetone vapors passing by it. The saving grace seemed to be that the air to acetone vapor was too rich. And thus nothing happened. From then on, I started paying closer attention to safety in the workplace.

Near Misses Events That Fanned the Occupational Safety Flame

My second manufacturing job was in the mining industry. I had a near miss event involving coming dangerously close to a front end loader that was backing up. I had the sun in my eyes, and I'm pretty sure they didn't see me. Thankfully, I wasn't hit. I promptly reported it to my boss and gained a much stronger appreciation for larger, or huge, mobile equipment.

The second near miss event involved controlling hazardous energy. I was shown how to power down a sampling screw. And eventually, I was tasked with fixing an apparent clog in said screw. I followed the steps I was shown. And the screw came on in my hands. Thankfully, it didn't move very fast, and I had on thick work gloves. The event scared the crap out of me, and I learned that what I was shown was not truly powering down the equipment. It was more going to deal with the screw when it wasn't getting a signal to turn. I got a huge appreciation for the concept of controlling hazardous energy after that event. And I'd argue that this is what truly set me on my path for working in the health and safety part of things.

Actually Managing Occupational Safety

My third manufacturing job was a job in which I actually have primary responsibility managing occupational safety in the workplace. Starting out, I learned that my employer had a significant amount of policies and programs. They were reviewed with a member of corporate so that I was at least familiar with them. However, that consisted of several hours of reading through the programs. In my opinion, the programs and policies were good at detailing requirements. But they didn't show how they could be put in place.

So, I spent a lot of time in the field learning how the processes worked. I was fortunate to have employees that, for the most part, were willing to help me understand things. Whenever I tried to put a specific portion of a program or policy in place, there was a detailed evaluation with the operators and/or maintenance to see if it was feasible. Some employees were skeptical of almost anything new. I got a fair amount of "it wont' work" from some of them. But, I didn't entertain that out right. If someone is going to tell me something won't work, they need to help me see why it won't work.

Truths About Occupational Safety

I spent a lot of time learning to a significant degree the company safety rules, general operations, and the frequency and levels of maintenance performed. I found that many of the safety issues were actually safety issues. But in truth, they were created by something wrong about operations. For instance, if you try to put in new ways of doing lockout tagout, you will probably get push back. Why? Well, operations needs to clear jams 10 times per day or so. So, if you try to do things too differently, or put barriers in the way, it slows down production. But why do you need to perform lockout tagout 10 times a day or shift?

The answer was the equipment was no longer working as designed. It jammed up with some frequency although the original design was tested to work just fine. The equipment was not maintained in proper working order. And, it was cheaper to have the employees lockout the equipment 10 times a day. When we started looking at what it would take to really get the equipment running like it is supposed to, we found that there was a significant to substantial price tag. The answer to this was to track how often they had jams, how much lost production due to having to clear the jam, and show how much money was lost.

When you start comparing the lost money to the cost of improving the equipment, it starts making more sense to repair the equipment and operate without interruption. In the end, this safety issue of having lockout tagout being too onerous was not due to safety at all per say. Fix the root cause of the problem, and you can often take care of safety and production issues simultaneously.

Often, safety management doesn't have much direct authority to make safety happen directly. Sure, if it looks like someone is about to get seriously hurt or worse, you can stop that specific action. But it's up to operations to actually set people up for success with resources and funding, as well as enforcing the rules once a facility is set up for success. I learned that safety was a concern at all of the jobs that I've had. But how it was practically executed differed greatly among the jobs and the various levels of management.

Pointers to Those Interested in Managing Occupational Safety

Expect that you won't have a lot of direct authority to make safety happen in the workplace. Sure, if you are supported by a good facility manager or upper management, you can make a lot happen. But the authority rests with operations management, not usually safety management.

The way you can make things happen is to learn how things work in the workplace and look for practical solutions. If you let them, employees will bring up a lot of problems. But they often aren't as forthcoming with solutions. Or they look at pie in the sky type solutions that take a lot of capital and approvals to do. You will have to help ground them in reality and look for solutions that further safety with the least negative impact possible to operations and productivity.

You will need to be good at capitalizing on the bad things that happen, showing why they happened, and how redesign can help eliminate many of the issues. This is likely to go further if you can show how operations is already losing money on the accidents. Show them that if you make the area safe, the employees can focus less of their thinking and efforts on safety, and more on the primary reason you hired them. After all, you made the area safe via design, such as through machine guards or guard rails.

Maintenance is probably going to be an area of safety that you have to watch the closest. Maintenance workers often have to do things that are unsafe by nature, and it's hard to make inherently safe. So, you have to make sure they are trained sufficiently, have and use the applicable personal protective equipment, and follow the applicable procedures. It's really easy to get into this "go, go, go" mentality. Mistakes and accidents are much more likely here. Sometimes, you need to go slow to go fast. If things are done wrong, and either someone is hurt or severe damage to property occurs, what time did you really save?

Think of Occupational Safety Appropriately

Last, but certainly not least, you need to not think of occupational safety as being the number one priority in the workplace. Think about it. Why does a business exist? Is it to be safe? Or is it more to produce a product (goods and/or services) at a fee higher than the cost to produce/provide that product? I say it's to produce and sell the product. That doesn't mean the safety isn't important or can't be managed to a high degree. Safety is vitally important to lower and higher extents depending on the business specifics. At the very least, it helps keep the overall costs of production lower than they could be.

Some people still may say that safety should be number one. I say, if that's true, then why is it that there often are a lot of people devoted to production or operations in some way but not that many employees that manage safety? There might be one or a handful of people managing safety at a facility at best, in my experience. In contrast, most of the facility is devoted to some direct form of operations or production. And that makes sense to me. It takes that many people to produce the product.

Additionally, I think it highly unlikely that something other than the reason why a business exists will or should be put at an overall higher priority that that reason. It just doesn't make sense to me. So, if you have that perspective in mind, along with the other pointers, it should help you have a smoother start getting into managing occupational safety.

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