By Mason Nichols
Whether small or robust, implementing training programs that address Focus Four hazards is key to mitigating issues at your precast plant.
From production-floor team members to plant managers and ownership, a commitment to safety in all facets is vital to successful operations in the precast concrete industry. Whether your plant manufactures a small number of standard products or a wide range of custom pieces, every employee plays a crucial role.
Just ask Donald Graham, risk management consultant for Barrett Business Services of Roseville, Calif. Graham spent more than two decades as a safety director in the precast industry. On one occasion, Graham was walking through the plant and noticed an extension cord lying in the walkway.
“I looked at the cord and saw frayed insulation, but in my mind, I had bigger fish to fry, so I didn’t do anything about it,” he said. “I did come back about an hour later and get the cord – but what could have happened in that hour?”
Minor lapses in judgment can result in catastrophic consequences. To help increase awareness and place an emphasis on the areas of highest risk, OSHA developed the Focus Four campaign.1 The effort places a spotlight on the four deadliest hazards in the construction industry: falls, struck-by, caught-in/between and electrocution.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls were responsible for nearly 40% of deaths in the construction industry in 2016.2 The next closest category was struck-by (9.4%), making falls the leading cause of death, by far. In the precast industry, fall hazards can exist throughout the plant.
A healthy portion of production work requires team members to work on and around forms. This work often includes the use of platforms, elevated structures and ladders – all of which place workers at elevation, introducing the risk for falls. Fall hazards can also exist near batch plants and silos.
Basic measures that can be taken to limit falls include installing proper guardrails around hazard areas and ensuring that workers operating at 6 feet or higher (4 feet in areas designated under OSHA standard 1910.23) are equipped with proper fall protection equipment.3 Andre Deveau, environment, safety and health director for Forterra Building Products, stressed that one particular approach offers the ideal solution for combating falls.
“Elimination is the best method,” he said. “If there’s no way a person can fall, you no longer have to worry about a person working at heights.”
For Deveau, elimination is made possible by installing landings and scaffolding and providing the proper equipment for personnel at all times.
While occurring far less frequently than falls, struck-by accidents, which “are produced by forcible contact or impact between the injured person and an object or piece of equipment,” remain a hazard in the precast concrete industry.4 Workers are frequently in proximity to heavy equipment and products of considerable size, resulting in the potential for dangerous working conditions in the absence of proper precautions.
“A lot of struck-by comes down to culture,” Deveau said. “For example, when people are using cranes and moving objects with them, it’s training that the worker should never have a hand on the object, because you’re using a machine that’s much stronger than you.”
In addition to objects moving through the air, falling objects can also result in struck-by incidents. One approach for mitigating accidents in this category is to ensure proper rigging is in place. This means checking load tags to ensure the rigging capacity exceeds that of the lift by the necessary factor of safety, examining the rigging before use for signs of wear and tear that could affect capacity, and repairing or removing defective slings.5
Though it sounds straightforward, being aware of your surroundings is also key. As Deveau explained, preventing struck-by incidents most often comes down to having team members understand what’s happening and where objects are heading so they aren’t placing themselves in harm’s way.
This Focus Four category is often confused with struck-by accidents due to the similar nature in which incidents occur. The key difference deals with impact. If impact alone creates the injury, a struck-by accident has taken place. But if the injury is created “as a result of crushing injuries between objects,” the event is classified as caught-in/between.6
Caught-in/between accidents can be just as devastating as struck-by, and to avoid them at your precast plant, workers must follow the same guidelines listed for struck-by. For Forterra and Deveau, it’s important for employees to take all potential hazards in this category seriously, including hand injuries, which is a common caught-in/between hazard.
“We’ve really placed an emphasis on machine guarding in this area,” he said. “As I’m using the equipment, ‘What’s going to happen? Where are my hands at all times?’”
This is crucial, because while a hand injury may appear to be much less severe than being trapped between a wall and a piece of equipment, a scrape or laceration could lead to infection, which could lead to an amputation, or, in extreme cases, death. As a result, Deveau explained that team members should never overlook any type of hazard or injury, regardless of the perceived danger.
Electrical hazards exist in many areas of the precast plant, from heavy machinery to electrical panels, extension cords, hand tools and more. They expose workers to burns, electrocution, shock, arc flashes or blasts, fire and explosions. Any event occurring in this category can be catastrophic and, as such, Deveau said Forterra placed an emphasis on lockout/tagout procedures to eliminate electrical hazards across their plants.
“Electricity doesn’t care if you have 20 years of experience and no injuries,” he said. “If you’re working in an area and put your hand in a wrong spot with a live wire, that’s all it takes.”
Graham agreed with Deveau’s assessment, and also stressed that electrical hazards can be created by a lack of training, such as not using industrial-grade extension cords. The same issues that arise with extension cords can also occur with faulty equipment. Check all energized equipment before use to ensure proper working order and examine your surroundings. If you identify a concern, immediately address it or vacate the area.
Turning the tide
Risk of accidents and injuries is a reality of working in the precast concrete industry. As production pressure climbs and businesses work diligently to acquire more work and push more product, the potential for Focus Four accidents increases. But preventing devastating injuries is possible – and it doesn’t have to mean installing a large, expensive safety program. Success can be achieved even on a small scale. Graham suggests starting with an emphasis on behavioral safety.
“In effect, this is teaching your team members that they are responsible for their actions,” he said. “But it’s also, ‘I’m responsible for yours.’ If I see you being unsafe, it’s my responsibility to say, ‘Hey man, don’t do that!’”
Another option is implementing a safety committee. Empowering the committee and rotating members through is a great way to get started at your plant. It also allows all personnel to buy into the importance of protecting one another. Ultimately, for Graham, it’s about not being afraid to try new things. As he explained, the process is iterative, and if you keep working at it, the right methods will stick.
For plants with more refined safety systems in place, other approaches may be more viable. Forterra conducts a “Safety Program Review” that covers a new topic every month. The company creates an 8-15 question audit for plant managers that runs sidestep with employee training and toolbox talks. As a result, for the entire month, every single person in the company is focused on the same safety topic.
A few years ago, Forterra also rolled out a comprehensive safety website that includes toolbox talks as well as in-depth videos on a wide variety of safety topics, including everything from PPE to welding, safe lifting practices and beyond.7 The platform has been particularly beneficial for new employees.
“We don’t just show a new hire the equipment,” Deveau said. “Before they even get to the plant, they’ll watch a video that shows the equipment and the safety risks. Then, when they arrive, they’re instantly able to recognize what they’ve seen.”
The company also plans to roll out communication boards across its locations this year. Each board will highlight employee birthdays and anniversaries but will also incorporate training videos to help keep safety top of mind.
Just a nanosecond
For companies with solid safety records, devoting extra time or attention to the Focus Four safety hazards may seem extraneous or even unnecessary. After all, why devote time and resources to an area that – at least until now – hasn’t been of concern?
Graham explains it best.
“Sometimes, you have serendipity in the workplace,” he said. “You can conceivably work an entire career, never follow a safety rule, and never get hurt or hurt anyone else. But then again, it only takes a nanosecond.”
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.