Let's guard against hvacr work's worst hazards

March 28, 2000
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HOUSTON, TX — Hvacr technicians face workplace hazards every day. You know that most hazards are avoidable; most accidents, preventable. Prevention is a high priority for you and everyone in the company — or it should be.

Despite your efforts, it’s possible you can do more to keep everyone safe and healthy. For starters, OSHA has statistics you may not be aware of. While the administration doesn’t break down the statistics by trade, it appears the primary problems seen in construction here are also seen in hvacr, says Terry L. Stibal, assistant area director, OSHA Houston South area office.

Four hazards are most common in construction overall:

1. More people are killed by falls than anything else;

2. Electrical accidents;

3. “Caught-between” accidents (between a piece of heavy equipment and a wall, for example); and

4. “Struck-by” accidents (like being hit by something that fell from a scaffold).

While electrical accidents come in second for construction as a whole, they may present the most serious hazard for hvacr. Unless corrected, they can produce tragic consequences.

“In the Houston area, we have had far too many accidents involving hvacr employees coming in contact with energized electrical equipment,” Stibal says.

“One in six deaths investigated by the Houston South Area Office involves a death due to lockout/ tagout-related causes. At least five of them over the last six years have been directly related to work on hvacr equipment.”

Apartment complexes: no license needed

Despite the high concentration of apartment complexes in the Houston area — or perhaps because of it — state licensing is not required of hvacr maintenance people in this sector.

Stibal has seen a do-it-yourself maintenance attitude that has resulted in a number of lockout/tagout-related deaths. “Our outreach training with complex managers and employees educates them about the need for lockout/tagout protection.

“That training seems to be working,” he added. “It’s a never-ending struggle, but the lack of recent electrocutions in the apartment sector is encouraging. Some employers are getting the message.”

As most readers know, companies are required to report to OSHA each fatality or permanently disabling injury, as well as accidents involving three or more hospitalized injuries. The agency is required by law to investigate.

Failure to make that call can result in a $5,000 fine.

The cost of a serious event can be staggering. Estimates peg the direct and indirect costs of a workplace death at close to $2 million. “How many small companies can absorb even a fraction of that amount and survive?”

And the human toll is greater. The loss of a coworker, especially under such circumstances, can devastate morale. Families, friends, employer — everyone — suffers a loss.

Lockout/tagout in detail

Says Stibal, “Because there may be no visible warning to alert the worker, electrical hazards remain the hardest to identify. That’s why having a well-designed and enforced lockout/tagout policy is so essential.”

Begin with the basics:

  • Never depend on someone else to shut off the power source; always check it yourself.
  • Always treat circuits as live until you have checked them yourself.
  • Expect tricky situations with someone else’s wiring.
  • Get everyone involved in the process. Identify the weaknesses your company is prey to. Work together to develop a plan to reduce and overcome. When everyone participates, they take ownership of the situation. They try harder.

Stibal sees complacency as a major cause of carelessness in correcting potential hazardous situations. Language problems, often English/Spanish, are already a factor and will increase. (See also “Safe service and lockout/tagout procedures,” The News, Feb. 14.)

Audit: annually or daily?

“The yearly [OSHA] audit program mandated by law is too often ignored,” Stibal says. “As you review the ‘near misses,’ you may find the tagout system isn’t working. In the future, you may require a lock instead of a tie.”

Even better than the yearly audit, Stibal says, is a daily audit of sorts, which would allow you to catch the minor problem in the near-miss stage and eliminate it then and there.

Doing so means you’re also eliminating the potential incident that could lead to a body on the floor and the call to OSHA’s 800 number: “I’m calling to report a workplace fatality.”

One goal of OSHA’s reinvention initiative is to identify trends such as deaths due to lockout/tagout-related causes. The agency will develop solutions to help eliminate or reduce such accidents.

The next step: Help employers implement the solutions. Ultimately, it’s their responsibility to eliminate these problems.

No complacency!

During the summer, heat-belt hvacr firms often work 12 hrs a day or more. When safety loses its priority, it’s easy to become careless.

Techs and installers are also more vulnerable because they are tired, perhaps exhausted. Extra demands create extra stress.

For all these reasons, why not welcome the random OSHA visit. The OSHA rep’s most-pressing need is to identify and eliminate serious hazards as quickly as possible.

Moreover, when it comes to providing a safe workplace, everyone is responsible. That goes for the trainee, the installer, the technician, the service manager, the office staff, and the teenager who helps out part time.

However, as Harry Truman loved to say, “The buck stops here.” Here, of course, is at the owner’s doorstep.

If someone reports a hazard and management fails to respond fast, the consequences can be very serious. Who goes to the victim’s home and informs their spouse and family?

That prospect alone should move safety to the top of your list of priorities.

Sidebar: Pyramid illustrates problems

To demonstrate his concern and show some statistics, Terry Stibal draws a pyramid, using horizontal lines to create five sections.

Visualize it.

The peak of the pyramid, the smallest section, contains a single digit, 1. This represents one fatality or permanently disabling injury. Employers are required to report these events and accidents involving three or more hospitalized injuries to OSHA. The agency is required by law to investigate.

The second slice, showing the figure 10, represents accidents that result in less-severe injuries. The incidence is 10 times greater than the top section, but the worker can return to the job.

Slice three represents incidents resulting in property loss. Such losses are 30 times more frequent when compared with fatalities and permanently disabling injuries.

The fourth slice represents near misses, incidents in which injury or property damage was narrowly averted. They occur with 60 times greater frequency than section one’s incidents.

For example, a helper would tap into an electrical circuit without checking, but a technician stops him. A vehicle runs a red light, but fast action by your driver averts a collision. Every one of the 60 near misses sends up a red flag that smart companies immediately heed and correct.

Section five contains the figure 1,000. These are the question marks. They could represent future injuries, permanent injuries, or fatalities. To a large degree, you have control over these events.

Sidebar: A how-to of safety

It’s every contractor’s job to make their workplace safe and healthful. OSHA can’t do it for you. However, Terry Stibal, assistant area director, OSHA Houston South area office, offers these guidelines.

Education: “Training is a big part of the answer,” Stibal said. “Safety and health training should never become a sidebar. Like all effective training, it begins with a plan.”

Policy: “You must have a formalized method of identifying what system you’re going to work on and what means you will use to protect people. That’s critical.”

Equipment: If it’s electrical, Stibal says, “What’s needed for lockout/tagout is bare-bones level. We’re not talking about spending a lot.”

Process: Training also covers precautions and testing. Testing means simply, “Can you turn the power back on without operating the switch?” Do you find mechanical energy in something like a heat system using steam?

“And sometimes you have to perform lockout/tagout a number of times. We probably have 300 to 400 fatalities every year because someone didn’t follow ‘in-to’ and ‘out-of’ procedures.”

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