By Mason Nichols
With a vast array of forms, mix designs and imagination, the precast concrete industry has produced a wide assortment of products throughout its history.
From floating docks to bridges to paving slabs to everything in between, no project seems impossible, and no request is off the table.
But with reward comes risk. For the business owner, that typically means monetary risk. For workers on the line, minimizing risk during the manufacturing process is just as critical.
This is especially true when it comes to extremity safety – the area of safety concerned with arms, legs, fingers and toes.
How do extremity injuries occur in the precast industry?
Hands are the body part that accounts for the most extremity injuries across all industries.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor reported more than 120,000 workers across all industries experienced a hand injury while on the job, accounting for almost 8% of all nonfatal workplace injuries requiring days away from work.1
Nearly every task in precast concrete manufacturing requires a worker to use his or her hands. And because workers consistently work around tools and machines, constant care is required. From conveyors to forklifts, nails, forms and mixers, production floor workers must remain vigilant even during routine tasks.
“We have a lot of sharp materials that are handled at our plant, including rebar, concrete forms and basically anything that you can think of – even sand, rock and cementitious materials,” said Shawn Albritton, procurement and safety manager for Kansas City, Kan.-based Pretech Corporation. “This leads to hand injuries accounting for more than half of what we see here. That ranges from smashed fingers to cut fingers to bruises on the hands.”
Allen Gardner, safety coordinator at S&M Precast Inc. in Henryville, Ind., agrees.
“While we mainly see smashed fingers, cuts and scrapes to the arms and hands, we’ll also see skin irritation from concrete or form oil,” he said. “Many of the injuries result from the sharp objects we work with like rebar and steel wire, but they can also result from working with power tools and other equipment.”
Gardner said that injuries can occur because of a lack of proper housekeeping at the plant. Disorganized workstations create tighter spaces, which can lead to trips, falls and injuries to – most often – an extremity.
Insufficient training is another factor that leads too often to injuries, said Deb Hilmerson, president and CEO of Hilmerson Safety in Prior Lake, Minn. Proper training in hazards recognition alongside training that places a specific emphasis on the extremities are keys to success and safety.
What steps can be taken to mitigate extremity injuries at the plant?
Many simple actions can help reduce extremity injuries in the precast industry. One of the most effective methods is to properly educate team members so they understand what to watch for during the production process.
Short, informal talks during the start of the day or a transition between projects are a great way to pass along targeted information about best practices.
“We offer ‘Toolbox Talks’ on a variety of topics, including extremity safety,” Albritton said. “These are obtained from NPCA and many other sources. Through this process, we stay up to date and ensure our entire staff is prepared for any situation, even if that means going through safety topics that we’ve discussed before.”
Gardner runs similar programming at S&M Precast. He ensures safety is top of mind for his team through special breakroom presentations that highlight opportunities for enhanced safety measures identified within the plant and how they have been improved so employees better understand what to watch for as they navigate their workspaces.
Performing a job-hazard analysis is another way facility supervisors can help safeguard team members against extremity injuries. Consider each process associated with a project – such as how reinforcement is handled – and determine where there is potential for an extremity injury. Document those hazards, then propose possible solutions using NIOSH’s hierarchy of safety controls to mitigate or eliminate the danger.
“I’m a big believer in hazard assessments and figuring out beforehand everything that is involved with the job,” Gardner said. “What can we see that could potentially be a problem and how can we solve that?”
Because production employees are always working with their hands, it is difficult to eliminate hazards. In many cases, ensuring the workers utilize the proper PPE ends up being one of the most important methods for helping to protect against injuries.
“It’s imperative that our employees wear their safety equipment – gloves, hardhats and safety glasses – at all times,” Albritton said. “We’re human, so mistakes will be made, but if each of us wears our PPE, we can reduce extremity injuries at the plant.”
Going the extra mile
An action plan when accidents happen is imperative as well, Albritton said. When an injury occurs at the Pretech plant, the operations manager and plant managers conduct a meeting during which the group discusses how the injury happened, why it happened and how to prevent it in the future. This way, the team consistently learns from incidents.
At S&M Precast, Gardner follows a similar approach. During the group’s weekly safety talks, any near misses that took place are highlighted, and the team goes into detail about what steps to take to ensure issues are prevented moving forward. Gardner also encourages workers at his plant to report everything they see or experience, even if it’s just a minor cut or scrape.
“I’m a firm believer that all the little things that supposedly don’t matter will eventually turn into something that does,” he said. “It’s imperative that we keep tracking the small stuff so it doesn’t lead to the big stuff. If employees aren’t paying attention to where they’re putting their fingers or hands when setting up a form, why would they pay attention to where they are putting their hands when they have a 6,000-pound piece hanging in the air?”
Establishing a strong safety culture is paramount to overall success. S&M Precast promotes a mentor program in which each new employee is paired with a seasoned employee. The experienced employee can pass on the knowledge they’ve gained through the years and help the new hire start on the right foot, and the entire team feels empowered to help keep their peers safe.
“To have a successful program, you must have everyone working together – especially the people on the floor doing the job,” Gardner said.
Hilmerson agrees, noting a few additional considerations.
“Top-level management must be committed to and participate in efforts to create and sustain a strong safety culture,” she said. “Additionally, leadership must view safety as a value – not a priority – because priorities can change.” PI
Mason Nichols is a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based writer and editor who has covered the precast concrete industry since 2013.
1 U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses. Last updated November 8, 2018. Accessed February 20, 2019.