Beware the Sliding Program

Ask point-blank what has slid during a LOTO operation at your facility. You may cringe at the answers.

Severe burns from steam. Electric shock. Death when a machine cycles and a worker is caught and mangled. Burns. Destroyed and or disrupted lives of family. Damaged or destroyed equipment. Lost productivity.

Add to all of these those dollars by the thousands that are paid out in worker’s compensation claims. Yet every day, somewhere, there is a lockout/tagout program beginning to slide that will result in some employee’s being injured or production’s being adversely affected.

Every employer who has in place a lockout/tagout program wants to believe it is used consistently and by each affected employee. The reality is, for every employee who knows about LOTO, there is probably at least one who takes shortcuts or is not particularly interested in following it to the letter.

These shortcuts cost big-time in lives, pain, injury, and damage. Ask point-blank whether any of these actions has ever slid during a LOTO operation at your facility:

¦ Failure to train all affected employees

¦ Failure to use LOTO locks and devices properly (or at all)

¦ Failure to stop equipment completely

¦ Failure to disconnect from correct power source in a timely manner

¦ Failure to dissipate (neutralize) residual energy from system

¦ Accidental restarting of equipment

¦ Failure to clear work areas before restarting

Safety professionals are stretched to the limit with so many program priorities demanding quality time. We train and then move along to the next deadline. We assume all is well, and we focus on the next big project on the list to be done. The unfortunate news is that LOTO failures are often invisible until disaster strikes and your phone rings.

This is a mandate that has been around for many years, yet it is still regularly cited by OSHA. It is a standard that can be hard to understand but works when used and does save lives—only, however, when it is followed each and every time it is needed. The tragic news is that for every reported death or injury, there are hundreds and maybe even thousands of near-misses never heard of.

Some near-misses are communicationrelated or involve language mishaps from multilingual crews. Some near-misses result from ignorance, others from Friday afternoon “don’t care” attitudes. Still others are stress-related and associated with tight work deadlines.

I often explain that LOTO is just about the best machine guard we have, but it only works when used.

Hazards of a Sliding Program
You see it a lot: A once-great program begins to weaken with staff changes, equipment change-outs, and different management focus. Live training shifts to a more static program, and updates become less frequent. The program is handed off and assumed by upper management to work. Others are visited once a year for training and then not thought about again.

Talk with your employees and change the training style to ensure everyone understands the fundamentals of LOTO. Retrain where necessary. Bring up different items on a regular basis in safety meetings. Share dramatic injuries and incident details from other facilities with your employees, because sometimes the shock factor does help.

Other hazards of a sliding program are time and overworked staff. Beset by constant deadlines, they may hurry so much that they do not audit effectively. Safety officers can burn out from dealing with such critical issues constantly and be overwhelmed, in the process failing to recognize potential problems as quickly as needed. Other safety professionals become “desk bound” because of paperwork demands and fail to get out to the business end of the facility as often as needed.

Safety has one tough job—overseeing all of the safety activities of your facility. Many safety professionals wonder why they chose this profession as opposed to something with less stress and more rewards, but we keep trying to keep our employees safe nonetheless, knowing the work we do is vital and life-saving for all employees. It is your job as a safety pro and as management to instill in them the need to use LOTO to protect their lives by any means available.

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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