Familiarity Breeds Success

Do more than a once-a-month, 10-minute walkthrough. It takes years to really learn a workplace and all of the hazards to which employees may be exposed.

We know the basics of head and face protection: impacts, flying particles, glare, radiation, and chemical exposure are givens, as is bloodborne pathogens exposure for medical personnel. Injuries range from the simplest scrapes to deaths and activities from medical care to heavy construction. Most companies have the physical items of PPE to work safely in all types of situations. Considering the potential for a workplace head/face injury, is basic really enough?

Often, it starts with a low-key, stammering phone call from a supervisor. “Uh, we’ve had a bad accident.” Then begin the questions of who, what, when, why, how, and what could have prevented this. The details of the first few sentences will speak volumes about your safety efforts. (Your job as safety professional is to find out information right now, not to place blame, so put the caller at ease as much as you can.)

I’ve found few injuries are as damaging or dramatic as head/face accidents. We see facial tears and lacerations, lost hair and scalp, chemical burns, closed-head injury from items falling onto an employee’s head, or an emergency medical technician sprayed with blood while performing life-saving tasks. All are potentially life threatening and usually leave visible scars. Most are preventable if the employee had been wearing the correct PPE in the form of a hard hat/faceshield or similar protection.

Although I know of no statistics on this, I am betting most head/face injury victims are close to the needed (but unworn) PPE items.

Audits, Inspection Questions
Become familiar with the work environment and the language of potential hazards. This should be more than a once-a-month, 10 minute walk-through! It takes years to really learn a workplace and all of the hazards to which employees may be exposed. Our workplaces change regularly in response to whatever job is being done. Employees have the tendency to “gear up” and “dumb down” tasks and hazards when being audited, and for that reason, you may not see the real hazard potential or tasks requiring head/face protection. Many employees do not typically want to wear additional PPE, considering it burdensome. Unfortunately, such a choice may create an injury.

When a serious injury occurs, the safety professional hears “Why didn’t you recognize” such a hazard could possibly exist? When reviewing the accident reports and interviewing, look for those strange action words that signify a need for head/face protection: slung, scraped, hanging, falling items, flying items, struck by, glare, high heat, chemicals, and jargon you may not recognize due to the process. Have your facts straight, including injury history for the area, task analysis, any hazard assessment, and previous inspection history. Include any PPE request by supervisors. Take photographs of the process. Having such information helps to stem corporate hysteria and finger-pointing in search of a scapegoat. The job you save may be your own.

Consider shared items. Shared shop items such as faceshields often are damaged or broken, and sneaky employees may hang them back in the rack to be used by another. Most employees, after one attempt to use a damaged piece of PPE, simply will ignore it and work without.

Have a process for requesting replacements. Make sure employees know how to reorder new PPE for damaged items and that supervisors are not penalized for reorders. Ask the employees what they need that they don’t have and make sure they receive quality items.

Temporary employees, summer interns, and department rotations due to sickness carry increased danger. Every employee needs to understand the specific hazards of the job, not just the machine to which he or she is assigned. And make sure the PPE assigned to this worker is the correct item, not a workroom extra to “make do.” Using the wrong PPE can cause a false sense of security.

In my opinion, glare is one of the most overlooked and underestimated hazards to any employee. Consider those working indoors around high light areas, welding, and those working outdoors in sunlight or on water or snow. Glare causes many mishaps and injuries. It also causes fatigue, eyestrain, and headaches, and the employee may become aggravated and hurry, leading to injury.

Most employees will willingly wear some PPE, but they may balk at working with multiple items. Consider all-in-one units such as the hard hat, faceshield/screen, and hearing protection units that make compliance easier and more comfortable. If you’ve not sure what is available, ask!

Paying Attention to Eyewash Needs
Never give up! Training will never be completed, so keep reinforcing at every chance.

Keep an eye on eyewash needs. Processes change or move, and a hazardous operation or process may be moved and the eyewash capability might be restricted by location or distance. Many employees are now carrying belt eyewash kits for remote work or additional first aid assistance. These provide extra emergency assistance until the employee can be fully treated.

Be the Go-Between
The never-ending need for head/face protection means going beyond the basics to ensure each employee is protected to the extent possible.

With shrinking budgets, this is more important than ever. Employees will rarely view safety as their friend, but at least we won’t be viewed as the enemy.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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