A plate moves on the table seemingly on its own. A door slams unaccountably while the air is still. A short breath streaks across the back of your neck. Items disappear and reappear. Shadows, ghosts, haunted houses, cat-sized spiders, and all things scary and creepy in life become a trending topic in October. Innocent talk of terror during this damp and darkened month rolling us toward winter is thrilling for some.
For others, unexpected sources of energy is not thrilling. It's a terrifying, helpless, life-altering reality. A light flickers. A strange scent appears out of thin air. Seemingly unprovoked, a whistle blows and smoke billows out. A machine comes to life and attacks. Crushed body parts, asphyxia, amputations, or death can occur. I'm not talking about ghosts or evil spirits. Hazardous energy is as real as the ability to breathe air and move your body.
Failure to control hazardous energy in the workplace has been in the top ten violations compiled by OSHA since their list came into existence. Protecting workers from the release of hazardous energy, such as the accidental start-up of equipment, is a priority for any safe workplace. Back in the 90's, the United Auto Workers conducted a study pulling data from the previous 20 years, consistently attributing 20% of fatalities to lockout/tagout (LO/TO) failure.
This statistic has dropped with proactive procedures, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Kinetic, potential, electrical, and thermal energy are the most common culprits. Too often we hear local horror stories like the recent death, this past September, of a 33-year old Mill City, Oregon mill worker who was crushed to death when a wood press was activated as he was conducting repairs on the machine. When lockouts are removed or bypassed, due to inexperience, thoughtlessness, or a lack of training—then protection for workers fails.
What can you do to prevent LO/TO failure?
The need for energy control procedures cannot be stressed enough. Ongoing awareness is critical to maintain the momentum of procedures and communication so that safety is always in the forefront of the mind while working.
Build good habits
Training is critical to success. Not just initial new employee training, but ongoing talks, repetition, and checkpoints. When training is instilled even if it’s a weekly or monthly spot check and demonstration it contributes to good habits. Choose different employees to deliver the training—which will capture attention by breaking up the routine—or perform demonstrations.
Talk about safety…all the time
We all groan when we hear a broken record, repeating the same thing over and over, but hearing the safety broken record saves lives. Keep an eye out for stories and accidents. Bring them up, talk about them. No one wants to be Debbie Downer either, but when the awareness is constantly there it’s in the front of workers’ minds. Making safety your mission will help people talk openly about the subject and contributes to good work habits.
Look for learning opportunities
Maybe your department knows safety procedures front, back, sideways and while upside-down polka dancing, but learn about procedures outside of your protocol. You never know when new tools will be introduced, or someone will have to help in a different area. Seek out information on how equipment operates before you work with it. Does it require unplugging? What is the source of mechanical, hydraulic, pneumatic, chemical, thermal, gas, water, steam, air, or gravitational energy?
Understand the lingo. Who are the authorized employees that perform LO/TO on machines and equipment? Which employees perform duties on equipment that requires LO/TO? What is the energy control procedure LO/TO for each piece of equipment?
Follow compliance requirements
Documentation required by OSHA will help you. This ties into building good habits. When you follow procedures, the documentation will be easy, and logical. Common excuses for not complying include: It slows down production. It takes longer to LO/TO than it takes to do the repair. Our employees are skilled with years of experience. We hire contractors to do the dangerous stuff. These are all excuses.
If following LO/TO means that a repair takes longer, or a skilled worker has to do something extremely mundane, then set those expectations. A life or limb saved is more than worth the effort. When you serve food, you don’t just set the glop of food on someone’s lap, you go through a procedure of pulling out the plates, dishing the hot food on to those plates and using utensils. When you think about it, preparing to eat the food is all very mundane, but we do it anyway.
Use visual communication to spread the message
You can’t physically spread the good safety word in multiple places at once. Signs and labels are important to the success of LO/TO. They can remind people of what to do in a specific situation, provide warning, and explain details that could be overlooked. Take the time to learn how to create your own safety signs and labels that meet OSHA compliance and reinforce good habits for your workplace. It’s more fun to celebrate the thrill of scary ghosts and ghouls in October, than to experience the trauma of dangerous real life energy forces that could have been eliminated with cautious action.