Mission Critical: Identifying Hazards in Non-Routine Work, Maintenance and Emergencies

Hazards may not be the first thing on an employee’s mind during the work day, but various hazards and their causes need to be considered.

On its website, OSHA emphasizes the need to identify “foreseeable emergency scenarios and non-routine tasks, taking into account the types of materials and equipment in use and the location within the facility.” Visual Literacy is a unique hazard identification asset used to proactively prepare for predetermined emergencies and non-routine scenarios, such as maintenance work.

The Need for Discipline and Slowing Down

Employees need to use all their senses to make good decisions in a crisis or in unusual, infrequent work situations such as emergency maintenance or startups/shutdowns. Visual Literacy helps enable our response to emergencies or non-routine work and maintenance tasks in a disciplined and methodical approach.

Detailed, quality hazard identification is a core component to responding as safely and as well-prepared as possible to emergencies and non-routine work. Slowing down, even a bit, to see is vitally important. About 90 percent of the sensory information we take in as individuals is visual. What we really see, as opposed to quick glances or hurried observations, determines the effectiveness of our hazard identification efforts.

Visual Literacy is a methodology that trains people how to see. One technique of Visual Literacy uses the Elements of Art. This exercise in art education has been taught for decades—students learn to see with more clarity and understanding by examining a painting, an image and yes, work conditions, by looking for colors, lines, shapes, space and texture.

Previously unseen hazards emerge when Visual Literacy teaches us to slow down and describe work conditions. Consciously looking at color, lines, shapes, space and texture allows us to deconstruct a work task or work area to identify where the dangers lie.

Perhaps material handlers have not lined up pallet loads with enough space in-between to maneuver, or a loading dock has worn surfaces with little traction. This in-depth “seeing” allows us to use the critical thinking skills of analysis and interpretation. Hazards are assessed for their degree of risk. Assessments lead to action plans to eliminate or mitigate those hazards. Perhaps most importantly, learnings and plans are communicated throughout the organization. These steps comprise the methodology of Visual Literacy.

Human Performance

Hazard identification can also be explained in human performance terms. Training and simulations move employees from knowledge-based performance mode to rule-based or skill-based performance mode.

• Knowledge-based performance mode might better be called “lack of knowledge mode.” This is because we rely on knowledge-based performance when we don’t know what we’re doing, such as when faced with wholly unfamiliar situations (emergencies and non-routine jobs, for example). In these cases, we rely on our existing knowledge to help us, which may be shallow if we have never encountered the situation before.

• Rules-based performance mode occurs when a worker applies written or memorized rules to navigate an unfamiliar situation. This can apply when changes in context prevent an individual from relying on skills that have been developed (skills-based performance) or when lessons from operating in knowledge-based mode are internalized for future application.

• Skills-based performance mode describes situations in which workers perform a task with little conscious thought. This is usually the result of extensive experience with a given operation. When operating in a skills-based mode, individuals rely on pre-programmed, automatic behavior.

Reacting Versus Responding

There is a difference between reacting and responding to non-routine work, emergency maintenance and natural or man-made crises and disasters. We react and rely on our instincts when there is no preparedness planning, training, procedures, drills and proactive hazard identification for foreseeable non-routine and emergency scenarios. It is likely we are not thinking about common workplace concerns such as:

  • Evacuation routes
  • Slip, trip or fall risks
  • Spills on the floor
  • Electrical hazards
  • Gasoline, solvents and flammable chemicals that might explode when the flames of a fire are roaring, heat is stifling, vision is obscured and the air is suffocating.

When we react almost spontaneously to do emergency repair work or handle an unusual, infrequent work assignment without training, pre-planned hazard identification and procedures, we probably will not stop to consider the following:

  • Is the work area clean and clear?
  • Is the ladder secure and extended three feet above the landing?
  • Is the machinery properly locked out?
  • Has the confined space been evaluated?
  • How heavy is the load I’m going to lift?
  • Can I fit in that tight space to do the maintenance job without getting pinched, cut or struck by pieces of equipment?

In contrast to a reaction, a response is planned. Time and resources have been allocated to ensure preparedness. Foreseeable emergency and non-routine scenarios have been identified. Audits, walkthroughs and other visual exercises—as well as data collection and review—have identified hazards. The degree of risk these hazards pose has been assessed. Job hazard analyses have been conducted. Containers are labeled. Safety data sheets are readily accessible. Risk assessments, emergency or task procedures, necessary tools, PPE and hazard controls have been identified, stocked and installed if necessary (in the case of controls). Employees have been trained. Procedures, responsibilities and accountabilities are put in writing, documented and communicated to everyone who needs to know. If necessary, third parties—local fire departments, law enforcement, emergency medical services and community officials—have been consulted.

The Need to be Proactive

Non-routine or infrequent tasks, including maintenance and startup/shutdown activities, present a range of hazards. Emergencies also present hazards that must be identified and understood. In both cases, hazard identification, situational awareness and critical thinking are essential to optimizing outcomes and making what may turn out to be life-saving decisions.

Proactive preparedness is a prerequisite to achieving those optimal outcomes. No one expects an emergency, crisis or disaster. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, indoor or outdoor fires (such as wildfires), toxic gas releases, chemical spills, explosions and workplace violence trigger our survival instincts. Amid chaos—potential communication breakdowns, power outages, ominous odors or smells, deafening noise, panicked coworkers, injured coworkers, debris, blocked exits, structural damage and more—life-threatening hazards are often the last thing on our minds. We want to flee, escape, get out. But emergencies and disasters can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Non-routine or infrequent work also catches us by surprise. A machine suddenly fails and needs instant repair. A gasket of a pump unexpectedly must be replaced. Or, perhaps it is a broken conveyor belt that needs replacement. A short circuit causes electrical wiring to be repaired quickly, or a satellite dish on a facility roof comes loose in a windstorm and needs to be secured. These situations create immediate pressure and tension. There is a rush to repair or replace so operations can continue. Workers are nervous and anxious because downtime can affect everything from production goals to bonuses.

Time is of the essence when non-routine work is necessary or emergencies erupt out of nowhere. Everyone feels the pressure to deal with these situations as quickly as possible—whether it is a matter of “fix it” or “flee.” To alleviate the risk factors of non-routine work or emergencies, remember to respond, not react. It is also important to have a plan, an inventory of identified hazards and training to make the best use of critical thinking skills to analyze situations and conditions through observations and objective interpretations of events.

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