The Flinch Factor
A panicked reaction during one unprotected moment cost a worker his livelihood and more.
"It was a little brown snake," the injured employee began. "It's tough to see a little brown snake on dirt in a crawl space till he moves, even with a flashlight." By then, it was too late.
This employee was pulling cable under a 75-year-old building when he was bitten by a venomous snake, which in itself was a serious injury. The serious injury turned critical when the employee flinched and tried to escape in a panic and stood up into a long, rusty floor nail that was shoved into his brain. Then he fell forward, striking his head against another pipe. Two years later his balance is unreliable, and speech is still slurred. "The doctors say I would have been treated in just a few hours and released for the snakebite," he explained, "but the head injuries caused lasting brain damage and blurred vision forever." I asked the safety question everyone wonders, whether any PPE was available, and the answer was typical: "A ball cap. I was wearing a cotton company ball cap. I had a hard hat but did not think I would need it, so left it in the truck. Had I been wearing that hard hat," he added, "I'd be working now and could drive, instead of being such a burden to everyone."
A valued employee lost his career and his way of life that morning because he was not protected adequately by head protection. This same situation happens daily to a worker somewhere who, for whatever reason, is not wearing appropriate head/face protection the moment needed to protect him/her from injury. Consider your employees and the work they do (when you're watching and also without your knowledge). Are they really protected, or do you have a false sense of security, hoping they are using supplied PPE?
Every safety professional has this potential problem at the workplace. Employees who have the proper head/face protection, such as a hard hat, bump cap, faceshields, screens, or eye protection, at the critical time it was needed were not wearing it. Almost every workplace task has some element of potential for injury. Others have high-hazard situations daily. For the most part, employees "may" be exposed to potential for head/face injury potential -- the hardest situation to protect employees against. Employees begin to take their personal safety for granted and take chances, thinking it can never happen to them. Until they experience the chemical splash and blindness, shards of wood, facial scars from metal filings, scratches, impalements, or worse, when it is usually too late.
Pinpointing the Disconnect
The standard on head and face protection is simple and straightforward: ”[T]he employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses appropriate eye or fact protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation." The section on eye protection is just as simple, requiring that "each affected employee uses eye protection that provides side protection when there is a hazard from flying objects."
So where is the disconnect, and why don't employees wear head and face protection?
- Inadequate or inappropriate hazard analysis of the job being done. Workers performing certain jobs need more PPE on in advance. For example, working in situations where there may be unexpected surprises such as snakes, spiders, cave-ins, engulfment (grain, etc.), low-lying pipes or ledges, cables, limbs under stress that may snap, and more. After a major storm or catastrophe, such hazard assessment is even more critical.
- In a hurry. Many employees seem always to be in a hurry and never consider the risks of everyday work tasks. This is true not just with remote crews or individuals who think "out of sight, out of mind"; employees on the shop floor take chances because they believe the law of averages is on their side, until they become the "one in a million chance" injury.
- Lack of training. Include in this section the "I didn't think about it," "it was in the cab of the truck," and "I forgot" excuses. Training needs to begin with purchase of quality PPE in the right size for the employee and the appropriate item for the job being done. Consistent and often is how to train the employee for long term use of PPE.
- Lack of uniform policy enforcement. Often, no policy or information is available. Different supervisors follow their own personal views on PPE, so each crew may do things differently. PPE needs may not be clearly identified (allowing employees to wear what they want, such as personal sunglasses instead of safety glasses, for example).
- Remote locations. One of the most dangerous jobs is logging. Somewhere, a logger is using a chainsaw today without head and face protection. When an injury occurs, it will be too little, too late due to the remote conditions. Others who work in remote locations or unseen situations will suffer injuries and not receive fast care for the same reasons: working alone or in a remote crew and taking chances by not using PPE.
- Budget woes. Not purchasing adequate PPE as a way to save a few bucks? One worker's comp claim will purchase years' worth of PPE for a mid-sized company. If you want a dramatic graphic for your next boardroom safety presentation, find out the expenses of two years' worth of PPE-related injuries and compare them to your dream wish list of PPE.
- Lack of cleanliness. I've inspected PPE over the years that were disgustingly memorable: filthy, smelly, dank PPE that was of high quality until it was worn and not cleaned or stored properly. I find the jobs that require daily cleaning of PPE and individually assigned items have a higher employee satisfaction and are worn more frequently. The employees consider the PPE as an everyday part of work life after a few days and detect something missing when it is not being worn. During your audits, do you look for the signs of consistent use and maintenance?
- Lack of leadership. You need real leadership, not the "sing the company song" happy leadership. Your employees take their attitudes concerning all PPE and company policy from their immediate supervisors. If they see any apathy on using PPE, it extends out to the employee, whose use of protection will be affected. When reviewing your head/face protection program, start with your line supervisors and other senior leaders. The most basic task can become dangerous if the correct PPE is not worn each and every time.
- Signs of apathy. During your inspections/audits, do you look for the signs of apathy in the head and face protection program? If all of the PPE you see is new and shiny, you are being fooled! Look carefully at the PPE in use. Does it fit? Is it appropriate for the hazard at hand? How old is it? How clean is it? Is it warped, damaged, or a hodgepodge of different equipment cobbled together for the new guy? Ask employees how to get new equipment and the last time they received new PPE. What about specific instructions from the supervisor? Are they documented?
Who Has the Most to Lose?
As safety professionals, we lead by example and by observation. As we inspect, we know fairly fast whether PPE is taken seriously by the supervisors or not. For the most part, it is tough to force employees to wear PPE for head/face protection unless we specifically see them constantly, so we have to encourage, make aware, and make available those items needed to complete the job successfully. Today's PPE varieties are almost limitless; personally, I think employees will wear PPE if they fully understand why we want them to wear it and what may happen if they are not wearing it when an accident happens.
This cannot be a one-time situation. It must constantly change, with awareness improving steadily. A red-faced safety professional squalling, "It's mandatory!" is almost useless and becomes a laughable perversion of safety attitude. I usually tell crews the flat truth: Their injury is their life, livelihood, and personal safety. To me, their injury is paperwork and improving the program for the next time. I can make sure they understand why to use the PPE and have it on hand, but, fundamentally, they have a huge responsibility to protect themselves. Who has the most to lose when they flinch and get hurt because they are not protected?
Let's face it, with this economic meltdown, we have to save every penny possible. Buying and using PPE is one of the best ways to do just that.
Checklist: Head and Face Protection
Does your site or facility safety program consider all planned and unforeseen hazards to protect workers from potential eye, head, and facial injuries? Do you have additional safeguards in place for remote crews? Is adequate medical first aid a priority in your plan? The following checklist may help you evaluate your program.
- As part of your PPE program, has your facility been comprehensively evaluated by a trained/knowledgeable safety professional for potential hazards requiring hard hats, goggles, safety glasses, or faceshields?
- Are hazards that may occur on all shifts evaluated by competent personnel?
- Is effective evaluation of remote work and isolated work locations completed to protect all employees, contractors, or visitors (such as vendors)?
- As part of the evaluation, is PPE physically inspected for damage, proper fit, and use?
- Do supervisors order/reorder PPE as needed for all employees?
- Is first aid evaluated and upgraded as needed for on-site and remote crews? How often is this done?
- Are areas requiring head and face protection marked off limits to unauthorized personnel or employees without proper PPE? Is this policy strictly enforced?
- Are your employees aware of how to mark off limits areas where remote work is being completed?
- Are there processes at your facility where open, overhead hazards are present and constantly changing (such as on construction sites)? Does a professional walk the site daily (or more often) to evaluate these changing hazards?
- Do employees regularly/occasionally/rarely perform entries for inspection, maintenance, repair, cleanup, or similar tasks where particles could fall or be slung into their eyes?
- Are they working in unusual areas, such as remote access, under buildings, or in cramped locations where bumps on the head could occur on pipes, nails, and other protrusions?
- What about chance situations, such as entering silos or other storage situations where protrusions such as bolts may be?
- Do tasks and processes at your facility require the use, either regularly or occasionally, of hazardous chemicals?
- Do you have PPE needed for employee protection of chemical and physical hazards, including cleanup and disposal operations?
- Is your bloodborne pathogens program up to date? Is PPE available for biological exposures from splashes or spills that can occur on site, and are employees trained on handling them?
- Are appropriate eyewash facilities available for their immediate use if needed? If portable, are they inspected and their solution changed as required?
- Are all eyewash facilities labeled as to their purpose and how they should be used? Are these facilities tested and kept clean for use at all times? Who inspects first aid and eyewash facilities?
- Are appropriate hard hats used in any area in which there is a potential hazard from falling, flying, or slung objects?
- Are all PPE items inspected regularly for proper use and signs of excessive wear? Who does this? Is it documented?
- Are faceshields provided in addition to protective eyewear, not instead of it? Do employees understand the need for both?
- Is all head and face PPE inspected before it is given to the employees?
- Are employees trained to care for their own PPE and to inspect it daily for degradation and damage? Are they told how to report problems with the PPE and how to obtain replacements?
- Do employees understand the signs and barriers used to prevent unauthorized entry when they are not wearing the correct PPE?
- Do all employees fully understand how to report an injury and to receive medical treatment? Is first aid quickly available?
- Is all information provided in multiple languages where necessary?