Hazard Recognition Training to Prevent Future Failures

With all of the changes in duties expected of emergency responders, it is imperative that we revamp our training methods.

The substantial losses in confined space entry and rescue continue. Most recently, there were two workers who perished in North Carolina, entering into a manhole. As tragic as this incident was, the fire department thankfully did its job and monitored the space prior to entry. The culprit was oxygen deficiency!

What started as a normal work day ended with the worker and the rescuer/fellow worker both dead. Upon arrival, fire personnel noticed two workers in the bottom of the manhole, used their air monitor, and determined the air inside to be oxygen deficient. After attempts to provide fresh air, the space was not able to be cleared, requiring rescuers to enter on supplied air.

This incident was 100 percent preventable. If the workers had monitored the space prior to entry, had monitored continuously during entry, and had been trained to work in permit required confined spaces on supplied air, this tragedy could have been prevented. (If only if . . . .)

I have mentioned several times that training is not only required but necessary to ensure that employees know what to do and how to do it. I am still baffled by the mentality of people who are so willing to take a risk. I have no doubt that the common person believes nothing will happen. I also believe that if someone does not know a hazard is present, then he or she is more willing to venture into the great unknown.

It is not like a person is standing there with a gun pointed at them, telling them not to enter the space. In that case, it is clear that if the worker crosses the line, he will be shot. Yet in confined spaces, the unknown and unseen is the killer.

From what I have found, workers are more likely to enter into a confined space simply because there is no physical hazard present. In a nutshell, a worker commonly will not stick his hand into a running machine, knowing it will take his hand off, because he can relate to the physical hazard. How do we break that mentality?

Hazard Recognition Training is Key
Let's look at the worker first. It is my belief, after many years as a safety professional and a firefighter, that everyone is different. Those who provide a standardized policy, program, or training may be missing the boat. What one person sees as a risk, another will brush off haphazardly. An individual's ability to recognize a hazard is what I consider to be the best approach to a safe situation.

How do we get there? Training obviously helps, but typically it teaches only what the standards or requirements mandate and not what should be done. After all, OSHA standards are the minimum that must be met. Nothing says we cannot be well above what OSHA requires. After all, is compliance or injury prevention the goal?

Hazard recognition training is the key. For example, when I teach confined space entry, obviously I teach what OSHA requires, but I also discuss best practice approaches and use all of the equipment in scenarios via a simulator. This allows the student to know what OSHA mandates as law and what will keep them safe, and it demonstrates the use of the equipment they will need to use. Hands-on training; placing the student as supervisor, attendant, and entrant; setting up a tripod; ventilating a confined space; filling out a permit; performing a retrieval; and monitoring the space -- all of these can and will make a worker safer.

Now, let's take a look at the rescuers. Traditionally, the fire service has responded to emergency calls to put water on the fire, assist at auto accidents, and support medical calls for help. During the past few decades, the fire service has evolved into providing a widely trained and technical rescue-proficient individual. We obviously still do the traditional stuff, but now we also perform detailed searches, water rescues, high-angle retrievals, wildland firefighting, terrorist attack response, hazardous materials response, and a host of other requests.

Filling the Gaps
The problem is, as requests for emergency services have changed, the training unfortunately has not. There is a serious issue with training new fire recruits in traditional techniques. Time is of the essence, but there is not enough time to properly train a rescuer to respond to any and all emergency calls. So what happens is that the emergency responders will wing it and do what the public expects us to do: to perform the rescue.

The typical career firefighter will complete a 240-hour training, while a volunteer will complete somewhere between 40 and 120 hours before ever being exposed to interior fire attack. Unfortunately, after completing the initial training, it is common for minimal monthly training to suffice as maintenance of skills, and not much new training is given. (This may not be the case everywhere, but I believe that it is an all-too-common problem. Departments need to see the gaps that we have and start implementing new skills training in some of the scenarios mentioned above, or we will continue to see incidents just like those already mentioned.)

Where does all of this put us? Workers have a failure because they are not trained to recognize a hazard and how to properly use equipment. Rescuers have a failure because they are not given the training on how to recognize a hazard, perform the rescue, and how to do it safely. Both situations are avoidable but, unfortunately, appear to be more and more common. In both examples, traditional training techniques have been successful in the past, but with all of the changes, it is imperative that we revamp our training methods.

Take a close look at the topics on which you are training and at how your employees are receiving the training. Look at your specific situations and train your employees on how to handle them. Provide them with the tools, skills, and abilities to work safely and work smart. Repeat the training as necessary, and make demonstrations and skill checks a part of your training program. Verify that your people know how to perform in any and all situations, whether they are emergencies or not.

Finally, embrace the changes that have and will occur at your location. After all, your employees should be your most valuable asset.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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