Whether working within the four walls of the plant, out in the yard or at a jobsite, precast concrete employees encounter hazards as they go about their day-to-day activities.
Exposure to cement dust, falls from heights, electrical hazards, chemical burns and overexertion can lead to serious injury without proper precautions. And while unavoidable accidents may occur, in many cases good personal protective equipment (PPE) creates a safer and healthier work environment.
A critical part of any manufacturing environment, different types of PPE help protect workers from hearing loss, fall-related injuries, chemical burns and the dust and fumes that are generated in a production environment.
Knowing this, federal and state regulators have laid out the rules governing the use of PPE such as hard hats, safety glasses, goggles, ear protection, respirators and protective clothing among other equipment.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) defines PPE as equipment that helps minimize exposure to hazards that cause serious workplace injuries and illnesses.
“These injuries and illnesses may result from contact with chemical, radiological, physical, electrical, mechanical or other workplace hazards,” OHSA points out.
It also said that all PPE should be safely designed and constructed and that it should be maintained in a clean and reliable fashion.
OHSA advises that manufacturers establish PPE programs that both show workers how to use the equipment properly and that include monitoring to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the program. The latter requires diligence, particularly when employees regularly “forget to wear” their goggles, hard hats or other types of protective equipment.
At Wilbert Precast in Spokane, Wash., Occupational Safety and Health Manager Thomas Jimeno said employees are required to wear a variety of different PPE depending on the work they are doing.
In plants that use overhead cranes, all workers are required to wear hard hats at all times. They also must wear proper eye protection.
For example, anyone who is working with a grinder or cutting torch must wear safety glasses and eye shields. Other jobs require respirators, which also may be used on a voluntary basis by other workers.
Jimeno said all plant workers must wear boots that go above ankle height to prevent ankle strains. For noise, he said Wilbert Precast’s facilities are “below the permissible exposure limit, so we don’t require PPE for hearing protection.”
However, the facility does provide ear plugs and earmuffs to employees who want to use that PPE on a voluntary basis.
With two plants in Washington and one in Idaho, Wilbert Precast must adhere to the PPE rules set forth by two different agencies. Idaho is OSHA-regulated, and Washington follows state Labor & Industries’ (L&I) rules.
“L&I is far more stringent than OSHA, so we just keep all of our plants at the Washington level for compliance,” Jimeno said.
BEATING THE HEAT
Ruben Gallegos, EH&S Manager at Jensen Precast in Fontana, Calif., said his company requires similar PPE for its indoor operations. It also has production lines operating outside of the building, where employees, especially in summer months, often are exposed to direct sunlight.
For them, the company provides shades that attach to their full-brim hard hats – either around the brim, or in some cases, cloth shades that attach to the back of the hat and protect the back of the neck – and shaded safety glasses.
“We also highly suggest that they wear light-colored, lightweight long-sleeve shirts when working outside,” Gallegos said.
When temperatures rise, Jensen Precast gives workers umbrellas that are either stationary or portable and can be attached to their tool carts. And in plants where noise levels are high, workers must use the required hearing protection.
In response to the extreme heat that most of the country felt last summer, Jensen Precast purchased misting fans that blew a continual, cooling mist into an employee’s work area.
Also in 2023, Jensen Precast built a new, air conditioned “cool down” room adjacent to its plant work areas.
“Anytime someone wants to get into the AC and sit down and have a drink of water, they can,” Gallegos said. “We also give them bottled water and electrolyte powder (e.g., Sqwincher sticks) that they can put in their water to stay hydrated throughout the day.”
IT BECOMES ‘PART OF THEM’
It is one thing to make PPE available to employees, but getting them to wear it on a consistent basis is not just something supervisors can mention at orientation and forget about.
Jimeno said his company’s safety committee manages enforcement and that all managers regularly walk around the plants, looking for anyone not following safety protocols.
“If someone becomes a habitual offender, we’ll issue a formal oral warning followed by a written warning,” he said. “After that, we can choose to do time off without pay for that person.”
At Jensen Precast, Gallegos said the company stresses the importance of making PPE a habit versus something that is “optional” and may be ignored or forgotten about. Much like a forklift driver is expected to wear a seatbelt when operating the vehicle, employees are consistently reminded of the importance of using PPE.
“PPE can become a nuisance for employees who may want to take their ear plugs out or remove their dust masks,” said Gallegos, who encourages supervisors to watch their respective areas while he and the plant manager regularly walk the facility, coaching and enforcing as potential issues are identified.
Over time, the coaching and reminding should become less and less necessary.
“When workers understand what the expectation is, using the PPE becomes a routine and a habit,” Gallegos said. “It just becomes ‘part of them.’”
USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM
When it comes to getting employees to use PPE on the job, Mike Dooley has a few tricks up his sleeve.
As general manager at Columbia Precast Products in Woodland, Wash., Dooley uses a “four corners” worker safety philosophy. The premise is simple: Make sure every corner of your plant and everyone working in it is covered, and don’t miss an inch.
Employees are expected to use the required gloves, goggles, hard hats, boots and protective clothing. They also look out for one another using a “buddy system” approach.
The lengthy heatwave that took hold this past summer reinforced the value of Columbia Precast’s buddy system.
“Someone may be experiencing heat stress and not even know it,” Dooley said. “If it’s 100 degrees out and your buddy isn’t sweating, then there may be a problem.”
In some cases, the solution could be to change the plant schedule so that certain tasks are done earlier in the day when temperatures are not as high.
For the most up-to-date information on PPE for precasters, Dooley recommends checking out the NPCA’s expansive catalog of safety-related resources.
“We all belong to the NPCA for a reason – because it represents our industry and offers the resources we need, including videos, PowerPoints and training tools,” he said. “Just click on ‘safety’ and drill down from there.”