As building managers and supervisors struggle to do more with less, they are discovering cross training as an excellent tool to reduce costs, maintain high skill levels, and keep buildings running smoothly and efficiently. Increasingly, specialized employees are giving way to employees who are thoroughly cross-trained in all technical areas of building systems. Cross training enables supervisors and employees to handle HVAC, electrical, and hydraulic systems in office buildings of all sizes, industrial and government complexes, and hotels. Moreover, it cuts the length and severity of outages and reduces downtime by as much as 50 percent.
But, cross training has proven to be a double-edged sword. It can compromise safety instead of delivering promised benefits. Poor planning and assigning work that is too complex for cross-trained employees to complete safely can instead have a dangerously opposite effect. The challenge is to know when a cross-trained employee can safely perform a task and when a specialist is needed.
Management may unwittingly place cross-trained workers in jeopardy by missing the true dangers associated with a task. For example, resetting a circuit breaker after it has tripped looks simple. Many managers want cross-trained personnel to be able to do it routinely. However, re-energizing circuits after a breaker trip is actually one of the more dangerous tasks in electrical work. To perform the job safely, it should only be done by someone qualified and trained to perform the necessary testing. This kind of task requires experience in addition to training.
The solution to this challenge is for management to obtain guidance from electrical safety personnel before developing cross training programs. Then, they must either provide formalized training to bring cross-trained employees up to the required level of skill, or avoid having cross-trained personnel perform a given task.
To prevent dangerous situations and still reap the optimum benefits of cross training, managers must plan carefully and include the following engineering and administrative controls:
Preventive maintenance uses manufacturers’ guidelines to schedule equipment maintenance, helping prevent accidents that can injure and potentially kill employees. Preventive maintenance is especially useful when anticipated frequency of equipment failure is high.
Predictive maintenance uses thermal scanning, vibration analysis, or other assessment methods to predict wear on equipment and parts for the purpose of scheduling maintenance. When a building uses predictive maintenance, it tailors its maintenance schedule to its own usage pattern.
To understand the difference between preventive and predictive maintenance, think about changing the oil in your car. Auto manufacturers used to say you should change your car’s oil every 3,000 miles. That’s preventive maintenance. If a car owner were to take oil samples in order to determine when oil is breaking down and only change oil when it is no longer lubricating as designed, that would be predictive maintenance.
Risk assessment is a method of predictively measuring the severity, likelihood, and frequency of risks. Using this control mechanism, an organization uses a numeric code – called a risk assessment code (RAC) – to quantify the risk of losing personnel and equipment through accidents or equipment outages. Management can then use RACs to determine where to invest in safety or maintenance programs.
Hazard analysis, included in risk assessment, is a systematic review of a process or design identifying inherent hazards and ways to control them. It’s an essential tool in order to determine what can go wrong, what the relative risks are, and what the best ways are to control those risks. Hazard analysis is similar to predictive maintenance, but instead of monitoring equipment, it monitors employees or systems.
Hazard operability study (HAZOP), or process hazard analysis, is a detailed breakdown of a process or design into its elements, followed by an analysis of each for ways they might fail or hurt someone. A HAZOP is similar to a hazard analysis, but provides a more precise control mechanism. The study looks for failure modes that might be hazardous or affect the operability of the system, and it points the way toward solutions to these problems.
A complete risk assessment can often help maintenance supervisors accurately determine when to use cross training and when using specialized personnel is the best business decision.
Failure to adequately manage the risks associated with cross training will likely result in a citation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA regulations came about because people were becoming ill or getting hurt on the job. These regulations were established as the minimum acceptable standards for safety. Adequate protection of employees may require employers to exceed that minimum requirement. Use of hazard analysis will reveal when achieving compliance alone will provide adequate protection for employees. Failure to comply with OSHA regulations can lead to civil and, in some states, criminal penalties.
Along with planning and controls for cross training, building managers must understand OSHA regulations and assure compliance in their individual plans. OSHA’s standard of care is that specialized and cross-trained employees be at equal risk performing a given task.
OSHA regulations mandate training to assure safety in the workplace and retraining for process changes and new tasks. Under the regulations, employees must demonstrate hands-on proficiency to accomplish tasks safely. Other OSHA regulations require managers and employees to identify hazards and be familiar with equipment and systems to protect themselves from injury and illness.
Building managers seeking to benefit from cross training need to plan carefully to minimize safety risks and comply with OSHA regulations. An in-house training department can satisfy this need; otherwise, consider working with outside training experts.
Good outsourcing training providers are thoroughly conversant with acceptable safety procedures and OSHA regulations. In many cases, outside training contractors have unique experience or expertise to supplement what in-house training departments may lack. An investment in outsourced training can pay for itself many times over in increased safety and reduced down time.
A Management Tool
The benefits of cross training are great when applied safely. They include reduced response times and freedom from waiting for specialized personnel to be called to a site. Cross training can be cost-effective for employers and helps make skilled employees more marketable and secure. It can benefit an organization seeking to solve a skills shortage. It can help building managers reduce outages by up to 50 percent in some cases. But, poorly administered cross training can be dangerous, with losses exceeding the training program’s returns to the organization.
The keys to cross training success and safety include having a clear vision of the training program’s goals, properly assessing and controlling the inherent risks, and thoughtfully implementing the program. With these elements in place, managers can benefit from cross training to solve a building’s skills shortage and reduce downtime significantly.
John Kolak is compliance division manager for Englewood, CO-based National Technology Transfer (NTT), a training outsourcing provider serving building owners with hands-on technical training seminars and classes.