Monday, May 31, 2010

When Things Go Right

The fire spread so quickly that the men stopped their suppression efforts and called 911. It started when an employee for this medium-sized sawmill was welding on equipment inside the mill’s main processing building. He had followed normal procedures, including wetting down the area, but piles of sawdust and debris from the log debarking process – soaked with oil and grease leaked from equipment overhead – had caught fire nonetheless. Fires in mills happen all the time, but in this situation employees inadvertently dispersed the burning debris – spreading the fire up a cable chase, rapidly spreading it throughout the building.

The first fire engine arrived within six minutes of the 911 call. But by then the fire was so intense, with smoke billowing into the sky, that the firefighters called for air support and focused on keeping the flames from spreading to nearby log decks and stacks of finished lumber. Two air tankers bombed the main processing building with retardant, and a helicopter scooped water out of an adjacent lagoon to make water drops. The building was a total loss, a charred ruin of twisted metal that had collapsed into itself. Fortunately the rest of the facility was spared.

The site required extensive demolition and cleanup, of course, but large wood processing machinery also needed to be removed. Much of it was salvageable, so removal had to be accomplished without further damage in an environment where heavy debris had collapsed on and around it.

After weeks of negotiations with the insurer, the restoration contractor was finally able to start work. First, environmental hazards had to be assessed and mitigated before the demo work could start. Asbestos was found in one small room, which was quarantined and quickly cleaned by an abatement team. The nearby lagoon had to be protected from runoff generated when years of accumulated industrial sludge was powerwashed off the floors.

The greatest safety concerns were electrical hazards, fall hazards and line of fire hazards. While some elevated work could be performed from aerial lifts, much of the work required climbing on debris and equipment, and on upper-level decking.

Planning for Safe Work
First, the safety manager required written verification from the sawmill’s management that all equipment and building electrical had been de-energized. Lockout/tagout procedures were documented and reviewed with employees prior to beginning demolition. Hard hats, safety glasses, and gloves were a 100% personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement; and dust masks and hearing protection were recommended. Only trained employees were allowed to operate aerial equipment or work at elevations above 6 feet; and fall protection was 100% required at elevations above six feet. Also, all work above six feet had to be pre-planned and approved by company supervisors. Daily pre-work meetings were held, where all hazards were identified and recommended safe work procedures were reviewed with affected employees. Site-specific job orientation was required for all new employees, who were required to sign written documentation. Hot work permits were filled out and approved by company safety personnel prior to performing any spark-producing activity.

Most of the fall protection issues were caused by leading edge conditions and holes created after machinery had been craned out. In many of the cases the equipment was large (25 ft. x 15 ft., for example), projecting up through the second level of the building. Removing this equipment left holes in upper-level platforms; and no work can be performed within six feet of an edge or hole without a barrier or fall protection (and a good plan). When the company creates a hazard, it has a special responsibility to protect workers as well as extra liability in the event of an injury.

Obviously, fall protection PPE was in place while removing machinery that penetrated any elevated surfaces. There were plenty of large H-beams to tie off from, so the company used wire rope retractable fall protection. Afterwards, barriers were installed around every opening with 1½” dia. pipe welded six feet O.C. and 3/8” wire rope threaded through holes drilled at 21” and 42”. Caution flags were hung every two feet.

Line of fire hazards existed wherever gravity or the sudden release of tension could cause injury or death: Piles of interwoven steel had to be removed, and any time one piece is moved it can generate energy by falling or causing other pieces to fall. Total situational awareness is mandatory. Obviously, powered equipment was used wherever possible, but in the effort to minimize damage to salvageable machinery, hand work was necessary to cut the equipment free. On more than one occasion, the safety manager stopped work to require a written job hazard analysis before continuing. The priority given to safety on this project meant that every task was assessed and planned before action was taken, changing the protocol from thoughtless routine to thoughtful caution. Every day was the first day, an acknowledgement that hazards evolve; that unknowns exist.

This could only have happened in a restoration company with a strong commitment to safety rules and procedures. Management had an absolute commitment to a safe workplace. The crew was engaged during safety training, toolbox talks and daily hazard identification; and they were proactive whenever they saw unsafe activity.

There were only two near-misses and a cut requiring a Band-Aid… a complicated, high-risk demo job with zero OSHA recordable incidents. That didn’t happen by accident.

Monday, May 17, 2010

OSHA Update

On April 22, 2010, the same day that the EPA lead rules went into effect, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, issued a memo to regional OSHA administrators titled “Administrative Enhancements to OSHA’s Penalty Policies.” Although the subject is serious, it can’t go unremarked that the term “administrative enhancements” sounds like ad-speak for a platonic marital aid… perhaps a gift of Post-It notes and a stapler to charm your wife off her feet?

All humor aside–seriously, all humor–this announcement is the culmination of a process that has repositioned OSHA from a compliance organization, or one focused on the carrot of helping companies comply with OSHA regulations, to an enforcement agency–one focused on using the stick of enhanced penalties to change employer behavior. Changing employer behavior is the focus because it is the employer that controls the workplace; and according to Dr. Michaels “American workers still face unacceptable hazards. More than 5,000 workers are killed on the job in America each year, more than 4 million are injured, and thousands more will become ill in later years from present occupational exposures.”

OSHA’s policy has been to consider several factors that can help an employer discount the nominal penalties if it is cited:

• Its history of violations
• Its good-faith efforts to implement an effective safety program
• Its “quick-fix” response to abate hazards found during an inspection, and
• Its size

These factors are given a different discount value, such as 10% for history and 15% for good-faith efforts. The discount for size varies according to how many employees a firm has, with the smallest category (1–25 employees) receiving the highest discount. This offers the greatest advantage to remodelers since the overwhelming majority of firms have fewer than 26 employees.

However, the new “administrative enhancements” change the way these discounts and other policies are to be implemented:

- The time frame for considering an employer’s history of violations will expand from three years to five.

- If an employer has any high-gravity serious, willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations in this expanded five-year history, then a 10% penalty will be added.

- The time period for determining repeated violations also expands from three to five years.

- Violations will be graded according to their low to high severity, lesser or greater probability, and low to high gravity. The newly-coined Gravity-Based Penalty will determine fines that range from $3,000 to $7,000.

- The size discount has been reduced (the discount for small employers, with 1-25 employees, has been reduced from 60% to 40%).

- If an employer agrees to hire a third-party safety consultant, it’s eligible for a 20% penalty reduction.

- OSHA has changed the way it adds up multiple discounts. Previously, it would add up the percentage reductions and discount the penalty by the total percentage. Now, they will be applied serially (the percentage for each discount factor will be applied one at a time to a declining balance), resulting in a higher net penalty.

- More details can be found at

In reality, few remodeling firms are at risk of an OSHA inspection because most projects don’t rise above OSHA’s target threshold of $1 million, and many remodelers operate individually and hence aren’t viewed as employers. But a serious accident or fatality has a way of putting even a small company on OSHA’s radar.

It happens that the construction industry incurs the most fatalities of any industry in the private sector, and specialty trade contractors the most in the construction industry (the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide a breakdown for remodeling contractors). According to OSHA, “Falls are the most frequent cause of fatalities at construction sites and annually account for one of every three construction-related deaths.” In light of OSHA’s new focus on the stick over the carrot, you should review your safety program; but especially so if you do any work requiring your employees (or subs) to perform elevated work.