Every cooling season, accident rates rise among facility staff and contractors, as is evident in incident reports, including those issued by OSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is due to heavy workloads and the rush to respond to unscheduled maintenance. Summer brings more on-site accidents of all types, from electric shock and falls to chemical exposure and cuts.
Make safety a priority this summer as you prepare to conduct unscheduled repairs, renovation work, or routine building systems maintenance. It’s not only a matter of workers’ health, but of money.
Safety failures inflict personal suffering and, in the worst case, can lead to a 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, as well as increased risk.
As much as possible, you want to diminish OSHA recordable incidents, which are those that result in medical treatment beyond first aid, loss of consciousness, or a significant injury or illness. A lost workday incident is not only a more severe OSHA recordable incident, but a detriment to your staff’s productivity. Here are some key considerations to ensure a safe summer at your facility.
Enact a Culture of Safety at Your Facility
Make sure your environmental health and safety (EHS) program is in place and being followed by all staff and contractors. Supervisors and managers need to drive the program by demanding compliance.
This summer, review your EHS program and make sure it is correct, complete, and that everyone in the company understands it. Review with personnel any changes to the building, new equipment, and renovation projects that might pose new hazards at your facility.
You can find resources to assess and benchmark your EHS program on the U.S. National Safety Council site or on the OSHA website.
You may want to conduct a mock safety audit to ensure that your facility is in compliance and that there are no gaps in your safety program before you undergo an actual OSHA audit. You could conduct the audit with internal staff or hire a consultant.
Provide Hands-On Training
All staff members, new and experienced, need safety training. The more training hours staff members undergo, the less likely they will be involved in a safety incident.
Each month, conduct training on a key safety topic. Combine informational safety sessions with hands-on training in which workers practice correct lifting, climbing, and material-handling techniques. Review with personnel any changes to the building, new equipment, and renovation projects that might pose new hazards around the facility.
If your facility has special safety concerns, such as chemical handling or manufacturing, make sure that any contractors working on the site have undergone the necessary training and use the proper personal safety equipment while working on the site.
Experienced workers often have a lot to offer newer employees on the subject of safety. During training, provide an opportunity to exchange information and anecdotes. Discuss summer safety concerns, including the need to stop, think, and take care, even in the rush to fix cooling emergencies.
Complement your training materials with those offered by the OSHA Training Institute, the Safety & Occupational Health Council, and industry associations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also maintains useful safety information.
Pre-Planning is Key to Prevention
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, ensuring 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 run through before starting any work.
Don’t Take Electricity for Granted
Contractors and technicians work daily with electricity and generally feel comfortable with its risks. Yet, every year, we hear horror stories of serious burns, injuries, or death cause by electricity.
Although high-voltage systems pose the greatest risk, electrical accidents can occur even when working with lower voltage. In fact, most severe electrical-related incidents involve voltages at 480V or below. Don’t ever 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.
It is a common mistake that service technicians turn 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 lockout and tag procedures before starting work.
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 is critical to understand correct positioning when lifting or moving heavy equipment. An injury-free back also improves the quality of life at home. Some tips include bending at the knees, keeping the chest forward, leading with the hips, and keeping the weight close to the body.
During one of your staff training sessions, consider having a physical therapist demonstrate proper lifting, moving, and climbing techniques, as well as ways to avoid wrist sprains, which also commonly occur on the job. Always consider mechanical means for material handling before manual lifting if at all possible.
Climb with Care
A fall from a ladder at any height can cause a serious injury. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that 65,000 people every year receive emergency room treatment because of ladder accidents.
An obvious, but often-overlooked, technique is making sure that the ladder rests against a flat, firm service and that it does not touch any electrical wires. Practice the “3 Points of Contact Rule”; always have three points of contact with the ladder, pole, or steps before climbing. Never carry heavy items up a ladder. Always climb looking forward, using both hands.
Ensure Proper Material Handling
Regularly review with facility personnel Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Your service contractor can also provide these.
During the summer, a lot of refrigerant is used for cooling systems. Your service contractor will provide information on proper handling of refrigerants. Some basic tips include:
- Always store refrigerants in a clean, dry, area out of direct sunlight.
- Wear protective clothing, including gloves and eye protection when handling refrigerant.
- Keep an eye out for any leaks and make sure they are repaired as soon as possible.
- If a large refrigerant spill occurs, make sure the area is evacuated until the area has been thoroughly ventilated.
- Do not use an open flame near refrigerant in an area that is not properly ventilated.
- Never perform any repair on pressurized equipment.
- Always ventilate the work area before using open flames.
Choose a Service Provider with a Strong Safety Record
A service provider’s safety program is important not only to the contractor’s business, but to the work they do for you. It impacts the ability to get the job done in a timely manner without incident and affects the costs of labor and insurance.
An experienced service provider with a record of safety excellence is less likely to have an OSHA recordable incident 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. Your service and systems provider should also discuss with you what safety programs they might offer for your staff.
Check the provider’s past performance, such as past incident records and references from past clients. The provider's safety performance should be in line with your safety goals. It is also important to communicate with the provider and work together to ensure safety at your site.
A little prevention goes a long way. Make this summer a safe one at your facility.
John W. Conover IV is president at Piscataway, NJ-based Trane Americas (www.trane.com), a leading HVAC systems, services, and solutions provider. Safety is a core value for Trane, which has an extensive staff of safety professionals in the Americas, provides its leaders and employees with many hours of safety training annually, and has an excellent safety record.