Make Safety a Top Priority This Summer

June 3, 2008
Safety failures inflict personal suffering, lead to serious injury or illness, and cost your organization in lost work time, delayed projects, and higher project and insurance costs

Summer is a busy time of year for facility maintenance projects, particularly those involving HVAC systems. With increased workloads and the rush to respond to a variety of planned and unplanned jobs, it's also a good time to re-evaluate your safety practices and make sure facility personnel and contractors are aware of the many hazards they can encounter, and how to avoid them. Through being aware and following basic guidelines and best practices for incident prevention, facility owners and operators can avoid the risk of high personal and financial costs of injury and illness to facility staff and technicians.

Safety failures inflict personal suffering and, in the worst case, lead to serious injury or illness that leaves a worker out of commission for an extended period of time. They also cost your organization in lost work time, delayed projects, and higher project and insurance costs - all of which impact your bottom line. That's why you want to diminish OSHA-recordable incidents, which result in medical treatment beyond first aid, loss of consciousness, or a significant injury or illness. Following basic safety guidelines is a good first step and can go a long way toward helping ensure that your facility experiences a safe and productive summer.

Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:

Stay current. Make sure your facility has an accurate, up-to-date Environmental, Safety, & Health (ESH) program in place, and that all staff members understand and adhere to the program guidelines. Make note of any changes to the building, new equipment, and renovation projects that might pose new hazards at your facility; review these with your staff.

Before you undergo an actual OSHA audit, conduct a mock safety audit to assure that your facility is in compliance and that no gaps exist in your safety program. Conduct the audit with internal staff or hire a consultant.

Conduct safety toolbox talks. All staff members, new and experienced, need ongoing safety training. The more training they have, the less likely it is that they will be involved in a safety incident. Safety toolbox talks are a cost-effective, time-efficient way to accomplish this task.

Designed to educate staff on key safety topics, these regularly scheduled lectures or discussions are generally short and relevant. Some managers hold brief toolbox talks once a week, continuously educating their employees, while others combine informational safety sessions with hands-on training in which workers practice, for example, correct lifting, climbing, or material-handling techniques. The goal is to empower employees to recognize, avoid, report, and correct safety hazards.

Experienced workers often have a lot to offer newer employees on the subject of safety. These toolbox talks provide a good opportunity for staff to exchange information and anecdotes and discuss safety concerns, including the need to stop, think, and take care in the rush to fix cooling emergencies.

Make project planning routine. Even under the pressure of a cooling emergency, take time to plan ahead. Some steps to take before starting equipment repair or replacement include assigning tasks to the most qualified personnel, assuring you have the right tools and personal safety equipment, and determining how many people are needed to move heavy equipment.

Develop a simple planning sheet for your staff to review before starting any work. This helps to organize and systematically address tasks. It also helps reduce guesswork and potential duplication of effort.

If an upcoming project has special safety concerns, such as chemical handling, make sure contractors working on the site have completed the necessary training and use the proper personal safety equipment onsite.

Never take electricity for granted. Contractors and technicians work daily with electricity and generally feel comfortable with its risks. Yet, every year, electricity causes serious burns, injuries, and, in the worst cases, death.

Although high-voltage systems pose the greatest risk, electrical accidents can occur while working with lower voltage. Don't let your guard down when working with electricity. Examine the electrical system and its condition before starting the work. Beware of any damaged equipment, wiring, surfaces, or wet areas that can lead to electric shock.

Service technicians commonly make the mistake of turning off the wrong disconnect switch. Make sure to check the circuit with a voltmeter and be certain that the power is off. Also, be sure to perform lock and tag procedures before starting work.

Ensure proper material handling. Regularly review with facility personnel Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs). Your service contractor can provide these. During the summer, cooling systems use a lot of refrigerant. Your service contractor will provide information on proper handling of refrigerants.

Some basic tips include:

  • Always store refrigerants in a clean, dry area that's out of direct sunlight.
  • Wear protective clothing, including gloves and eye protection, when handling refrigerant.
  • Keep an eye out for any leaks; make sure they are repaired as soon as possible.
  • If a large refrigerant spill occurs, evacuate the area until it's thoroughly ventilated.
  • Do not use an open flame near refrigerant or in an improperly ventilated area.
  • Never perform any repair on pressurized equipment.
  • Always ventilate the work area before using open flames.

Watch your back. Some of the most common injuries to service technicians and maintenance personnel involve muscle, joint, or disc injuries to the back. To avoid these accidents, it's critical to understand correct positioning when lifting or moving heavy equipment

Check your service provider's safety record. A service provider's safety program is important to the provider's business and to the work they do for you. An experienced service provider with a record of safety excellence is less likely to have an OSHA-recordable accident on your site. If something does occur, the provider will be prepared to act with an appropriate safety plan and resolve the situation quickly and without disruption.

Check the provider's past performance, such as past incident records and references from other customers. The provider's safety performance should be in line with your safety goals. Communicate with the provider and work together to ensure safety at your site.

A little prevention goes a long way. By taking the right precautions and planning properly, you can reduce the risk of safety-related incidences stemming from maintenance projects, as well as negative effects on schedules and budgets.

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