Written by Craig White
All too often I read stories about workplace safety incidents in which employees are struck by an object around their job sites, and commonly their initial reactions are to say something along the lines of “I never saw it coming.” The notion that employees can be injured simply because they were not paying close enough attention to the machinery and objects in their work environment is unacceptable, and these types of accidents are almost always preventable.
Lacking awareness of one’s surroundings places employees in high-risk exposure situations that can lead to safety incidents, such as:
- Being distracted by loud noises or coworkers
- Taking one’s eyes off the road while driving
- Rushing to complete a task
- Working while fatigued or extremely tired
- Working at a new job site
The outcome of employees’ high-risk behaviors associated with low awareness of surroundings can be disastrous. For example, an independent contractor at Ford’s auto plant in Kansas City died while working on the assembly line just days before Christmas.
Noticing a seat out of position in the line carrier, he entered a restricted area and attempted to correctly reposition it in order to avoid a halt in production. While doing so he became caught in the conveyer belt which resulted in severe injuries. No other workers were in the area at the time to witness the incident, and according to one report, the contractor was pinned in that position for hours before he was discovered, by which time his injuries were too severe for him to survive.
In an attempt to resolve a problem quickly, without stalling progress on the line, the contractor violated the safety policy of not working on moving equipment. This story serves as a grave reminder that we must NEVER prioritize production or quality over safety. Had he taken the time to temporarily stop the production line and lockout/tagout the machinery before fixing the misaligned seat, he would likely have gone home to his family that night.
This story reminds us why it is critical that employees get in the habit of asking themselves these three questions before starting any task:
- Is there anything in my work area that poses a threat to my safety, and if so, to what extent?
- Is the threat great enough that I should stop working immediately?
- Is there anything I can do to reduce the risk exposure so that I can continue to work safely?
Organizations can work with their employees to reduce their risk behaviors related to this factor accordingly. To increase awareness of one’s surroundings, we recommend that employees survey the work area before performing any tasks taking these steps:
1. Ensure that there is enough space to do the required work
- Identify energy sources that require lockout/tagout procedures
- Look for hazards in the work area such as low-hanging overhead objects, sharp edges or surfaces, standing water, exposed wiring, unguarded equipment, general work environment conditions
- Make sure that all safety devices on the equipment are in good working order before use
- Discuss work status and potential hazards with coworkers in the area and/or the replacement at shift change prior to starting any work
2. Think before acting
- Before starting any task, be sure that the correct procedures to complete the job are communicated, employees have the correct PPE, and they understand the present hazards of performing the task.
- Be sure employees are aware of their body position and hands in relation to machinery, equipment, and other objects. Instruct them to adjust, minimize, or slow movements as required by the work environment to avoid contact with objects. They should always walk behind moving equipment when possible, never obstruct vision by overloading moving equipment, and use extra caution around corners and doorways.
- When transporting materials, have employees walk the route prior to moving anything. They can use this time to look for obstacles such as uneven surfaces, trip hazards, and objects they will need to maneuver around as well as foot traffic.
- Be careful to not create additional hazards — avoid running extension cords through high foot traffic areas, don’t block exits or regularly used pathways, and clean up once a task is complete or the shift is over (tools, debris, replace machine guards, electrical covers, etc.).
- Consider how many coworkers will be in the work area when performing a task.
- Put up barriers and signage to warn employees to avoid dangers in the work area.
- Don’t become complacent. Employees who are too comfortable with their work surroundings may begin to overlook potential hazards.
With all of the existing dangers around our job sites, it is important that exposure to hazards is minimized by simply paying attention to what is going on within the work environment. Taking just a minute to evaluate work areas and potential risks can save lives.