Monday, June 8, 2009

Jobsite learns from near topple

“If we think worries and concerns don’t follow us to work, we’re fooling ourselves,” said a foreman I interviewed recently. “One of the things I realized after witnessing a potential disaster is that -- no matter how troubled the economy or unstable things might seem -- I have a responsibility to take care of the here and now. If I can’t do my part to ensure that everyone gets home in one piece, then I’m making things worse.”

That statement says it all.

The man I interviewed described his epiphany during an otherwise uneventful day at a construction site at a college campus. As project manager -- we'll call him Smith -- assumed the best when the driver delivering a 480-watt generator navigated through a narrow and unimproved alley to get into position for staging.

About a dozen workers from four different subcontractors were busily tending to their respective tasks. The various crews included a duo working at about 20 feet above the ground from inside the basket of an extended manlift.

“That was the beginning of the problem,” said Smith. “The heavy equipment rigger had every intention to get in and out with as little disruption as possible. It’s so easy to think that way -- let’s just stay out of everyone’s way and just get it done.”

Smith and the others in the vicinity described how the truck driver -- a subcontractor -- attempted to get his rig in place. The driver inched forward before becoming entangled by a partially buried metal beam. As the driver goosed the accelerator, he unintentionally caused the unearthed metal to snag the manlift.

“When the trailer hit the metal beam on the ground, the men inside the basket nearly lost their balance,” Smith said. “Everything happened all at once: the entire manlift shook and could’ve toppled.”

Yells from everyone on the scene -- who happened to be watching -- alerted the driver to stop and work halted immediately. If the driver had forced his way farther, Smith believed, there was a strong likelihood of toppling the boom. Witnesses of the no-loss event were shaken by the “what ifs.” In short order, Smith was on the phone with the EH&S Manager who was able to arrive within 30 minutes.

The EH&S guy -- I'll call Rodriguez -- interviewed all the witnesses, gathered relevant facts, and helped facilitate the lessons learned.

“Naturally, there was a lot of frustration and tension at the site,” Rodriguez said. In the end, however, it appeared that everyone recognized what needed to be done. Rodriquez took the bold move by emphasizing that everyone had an opportunity, a gift: No one was harmed and everyone was able to identify contributing factors and come away with some very sobering lessons -- lessons that would hopefully prevent something similar from happening again.

By the end of the day, Smith and Rodriguez identified two lapses in procedure: first, the contractor didn’t have the proper rigging credentials on file. Second, there was no pre-plan communication for the staging (which would’ve called for at least two spotters to keep the driver in check).

As a matter of process (from what I understand), it’s required that the general contractor or site superintendent be notified about the planned delivery, and staging and rigging operation. Every crew member in the vicinity -- regardless of their employer -- needs to understand the steps involved and their role.

At the heart of a safe jobsite is a commitment to communicate and to explain a step-by-step pre-plan, a coordinated effort to have the right spotters in position, and if needed, work stoppage.

“When it comes to our safety, there’s no such thing as wasting anyone’s time,” said Rodriguez. “For someone to think or say that it’s a ‘hassle’ or ‘not worth the time’ is a nonstarter. If the communication is meant to get everyone on the same page and eliminate as many risks as possible, then I can’t think of time better spent.”

The obvious irony, Rodrigues told me, is that a pre-plan and tailboard meeting would’ve only taken less than thirty minutes, as opposed to halting all work for the rest of the afternoon. Not only did the near tragedy equate to postponing 80 hours of production time for the combined crews, but the generator delivery had to be scheduled for a different day.

Smith said it was a wakeup call that could’ve easily resulted in a life-changing tragedy.

“In a lot ways it was a gift,” Smith said. “And that’s pretty much what Rodriguez said to everyone at the site. I came away very humbled.”

Rodriguez emphasized that what could’ve spiraled into one big blame game and finger pointing session, was a willingness to make sure there would never be a next time.”
He pointed out that near miss reports have had a huge impact on the company’s safety performance. Learning from no-loss events is essential to continuous improvement; by tracking near misses, they've been able to recognize how errors, deficiencies, and failures are instrumental in arriving at corrective actions.

Rodriguez and Smith also wanted to remind people to find ways to set aside personal concerns before starting work or moving onto a different task. Questions -- Where is my focused attention right now and where should it be? Am I committed to working safely and asking others to work safely? What are all the different ways an injury or incident could occur? -- are helpful for getting into the right mindset. “These questions have particular relevance in the moment,” Smith said.

Rodriguez agrees: “We’re facing one of the most daunting economic downturns in at least a generation. Rather than ignore the realities of being human, we simply need to keep perspective by shifting our focus on the present and get perspective by asking ourselves, What is within my control at this moment?

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