Time to Look Again?

A series of severe accidents at wastewater treatment plants should be a clarion call for managers and operators to revisit safety practices

A few months ago, the news brought reports of three serious incidents in one week at wastewater treatment plants nearly spanning the country.

A construction worker died in a trenching accident in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Five construction workers were injured in a propane explosion in Edmonds, Wash. And two treatment plant maintenance workers were critically burned in a methane gas explosion in Struthers, Ohio.

I know that wastewater treatment plants pay close attention to safety and in general have excellent records for low frequency of lost-time accidents. But statistics aren’t necessarily something to hang one’s hat on.


What could have been done?

I once was acquainted with a mining company president who, during a previous tenure was a coal mine manager in South America. Over a very long stretch of years, the mine had experienced two worker fatalities — a safety record far better than industry — in a huge operation that employed more than 1,000 people.

One might have expected this man to be proud of his record, and all things considered perhaps he was. But on one occasion when asked about the mine’s safety, he responded, “I am ashamed to say that two men died on my watch.” He went on to say that when one looks carefully at any occupational fatality, there is almost always something that could or should have been done to prevent it.

At the risk of seeming like a Monday morning quarterback, it seems that a trenching accident, for example, should be eminently preventable. A trench beyond a certain depth must be shored; if the soil is unstable, then people and equipment must be kept away from the edge of the excavation. A Competent Person is supposed to evaluate site conditions and recommend the proper precautions.

Were good procedures and policies in place that the workers in question, including the victim, simply failed to follow? Quite possibly — that does happen. If so, all the more reason to give safety practices another look and a bit more emphasis.


Attention to detail

So much of safety performance depends on attention to little things — not just the quality of the safety program, the effectiveness of safety training, or the condition of equipment. What often separates the best safety programs from the rest is an almost obsessive fussiness about the details of safe working.

These days no responsible company operates equipment with dangerous mechanisms unguarded. Every top firm requires personal protective equipment appropriate to the site and the task. Everyone does the big things like locking out electrical devices during repair, and using proper confined-space entry procedures.

How, then, do accidents happen? Often it’s the little things — that detail overlooked, the minor rule exception made. If you think about it, it can be incredibly easy to get hurt on a work site if you’re being the least bit careless.

Years ago, while working my way through college, I had a summer job with a temporary help service. On one assignment, I ran a grinding wheel, cleaning paint off the heads of bolts. I simply had to hold the bolt head against the wheel for a few seconds until the shiny metal was exposed.

It was a clean, pleasant workplace. I was given safety glasses. I went about the job mechanically, one bolt after another. Then, about six hours into the workday, I felt a sudden pain in my left hand, alongside the knuckle at the base of my index finger. I had brushed up against the abrasive wheel, probably spinning at a couple thousand rpm, and it had cut a ditch in my skin almost down to the bone. I still have the scar.


Asking questions

When I stepped back to analyze what had happened, I realized that the pattern of motion I had developed during the day was causing me to pass that left hand within a tiny fraction of an inch of that wheel each time I tossed a finished bolt into the box and brought the hand back to work on the next piece.

Why didn’t I notice that? Why didn’t the person supervising me notice it? For that matter, why didn’t someone in the shop say, “Hey, that temp should be wearing gloves.” The reason? Details. This job wasn’t something people did every day — otherwise the firm wouldn’t have hired a temp for a day to do it.

The people surely knew the risks of working on a grinding wheel, but maybe not the risks of this particular menial, now-and-then job. For my part, I was just a college kid and didn’t know a thing about workplace safety. Someone could have told me at the start of the workday (while issuing gloves) that this grinding wheel could take a chunk of flesh off my bones in a fraction of a second. Another detail.

And so one has to ask: How many work accidents happen because someone didn’t take a critical look at a particular task? Or more to the point, how many accidents and injuries could be saved if people did?


Targeting zero

So consider carrying that idea into your treatment workplaces. Be alert for the hard-to-spot hazard on a particular odd job. Be rigorous about forbidding exceptions to safety rules. For example, it’s not OK for someone to enter a confined space unprotected because he or she will “only be there for a second.”

Keep an eye peeled for the little things. Don’t feel bad about being obsessive and fussy in watching for hazards and enforcing your rules. On the contrary, feel proud of it.

If you do these things, you have a better chance of being able to post on your bulletin board at year’s end a sign that says: “We have worked 365 consecutive days without a lost-time accident.”

It’s worth noting that impressive safety statistics don’t matter to the one person who ends up getting hurt. The only acceptable workplace injury rate is zero, and that must always be the goal.


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