Solid Machine-Safety Stance

By G.C. Skipper, Contributing Editor | September 28, 2010

Know the Jargon

In the world of safety, it helps to understand the jargon, such as lockout/tagout. The best way to explain the term is to give an example of how it applies to professional fleet managers.

Todd Perrine at Leslie Equipment gives this example: An equipment manager is called to a jobsite to find out why a machine won't run. He discovers that it has an electrical problem back underneath the axles. There is a risk that while he's back there working on the problem, the operator will come up, see his truck and call for him. Since the work site is noisy, he might not hear the operator. Because there is no answer after several times calling out, the operator thinks the machine has been repaired. He hops in the cab, starts it up, and accidentally runs over the mechanic underneath the unit.

Lockout/tagout prevents such accidents. Safety procedures require that lockout/tagout signs be placed on the steering wheel, door handle, or any place easily visible to the person entering the vehicle.

The sign has the technician's name or initials on it, and he is the only person who can sign off on the machine before it can be moved. Most company policies, says Perrine, hold the operator liable if he sees the tag, pulls it off or ignores it and starts the machine up anyway.

"Basically," says Perrine, "lockout/tagout tells you that the machine is stopped, out of service, and can't be used until the person who took it out of service puts it back into service."

Most field technicians keep tags with them and they simply write something like, "Machine down. Engine problems" and then initial or sign the tag.

Jack Butler, Butler, Cranes & More, says that lockout/tagout is an OSHA regulation. "If you're changing a tire on a pickup at a jobsite, the regulation states that you need to take the truck keys out of the ignition, put an out-of-service tag on the steering wheel, jack the vehicle up — and to really carry it further — disconnect the battery to disable the vehicle."

Butler admitted he had never seen anyone do that when it comes to changing a tire, but the regulation makes sense when, for instance, it comes to a mechanic working on a large excavator that has a fire-suppression system on it.

"In order to check the oil on this piece of equipment, a mechanic has to go up on the machine, then down in the house of the machinery," Butler says. "To do that, the fire-suppression system should be locked out. If it discharges while he's in there, he doesn't have any options to get out."

To lock out such a system calls for the simple insertion of a pin. "There is a procedure and a warning label in the operator's cab that tells you about this," Butler says. "The fire-suspension systems have heat sensors, and it is automatically discharged by heat throughout the piece of equipment. It works like a sprinkler system in a building, except rather than discharging water, it discharges foam."

That, he says, is what lockout/tagout is all about.

'Shall Is Law'

It doesn't matter what kind of fleet you have, the long arm of the law — in this case federal, state and local regulations — will reach you.

Keeping up with what is legal and what isn't sometimes can be a challenge to many fleet professionals. Yet savvy experts have come up with a simple way to interpret all that legalese found in governmental documents.

First of all, the regulations that apply to local situations, they say, often are simply rewrites of federal regulations, such as OSHA. If you comply with one, you comply with the other — but you have to know what you're reading.

For example, says Perrine of Leslie Equipment, there is a difference between the word "should" and the word "shall."

"'Should' means OSHA recommends that you do whatever it is," Perrine says, "and if you don't do it you could be fined. If the regulation says 'shall', you better be darn sure you do it because, if you don't, you definitely are going to be fined."

What fleet managers need to remember, he says, is, "Shall is law."

Safety Tips Review

The following are a few guidelines that will help create a safe work environment and increase safety awareness among employees.

On large construction jobs, visit the office trailer before entering the site. It's a quick, easy way to find out where hazardous areas, wires, chemicals and other dangers are located.

Have personnel wear reflective vests so they are clearly visible on the jobsite.

Institute a safety-glasses policy to protect eyes and similar procedures to protect ears, hands and feet with appropriate safety wear.

Fleet managers should track the number of injuries by type. Review the results at monthly shop meetings or send memos out to mechanics and operators.

Keep communications with workers open. If an injury occurs, workers will hear about it through the rumor mill. Investigate the accident and send out an e-mail giving details on what really happened and what should be done to prevent similar accidents in the future. This will give employees something to talk about.

For noisy work environments, such as frequent use of hammers, consider having your employees' hearing checked annually. If hearing problems increase, workers may not be using ear plugs. Correct the problem. Also monitor your shop to make sure the decibel levels are not out of spec.

Safety requires more than lip-service. It must have ownership from the top down as well as from the bottom up.

"Plain and simple, you cannot afford to overlook safety," says William Vanden Brook, CEM, and motor equipment superintendent for the City of Madison [Wis.]. "Although safety is an extremely broad subject, it is an extremely important issue to all. The moment that a manager or supervisor or foreman ignores it in the face of an employee, he has just reduced his entire safety program forever. You can't afford to do that because of the liability you have out there today."

Sometimes fleet professionals who do enforce safety practices when it comes to equipment, manpower and shop environment, "get a bad tag for their costs," says Vanden Brook. "However, they are looking out for the liability of the whole company or the organization or the city. I can't put a value on that."

Although a municipal fleet manager such as Vanden Brook may face different hazards than a construction fleet manager, one truism applies to both — a work site is a dangerous place, but it does not have to be an unsafe place.

Nobody knows that better than Jack Butler, president of Butler, Cranes & More. For more than 30 years, Butler has worked with heavy equipment. He has held positions with construction companies and crane operations, and has organized and taught safety classes for numerous clients.

"Construction jobsites are dangerous places," he says. "When heavy equipment is operating, jobsites become even more dangerous. Noise; equipment exhaust; earth vibrations; swinging buckets, booms and ropes; and back-up alarms all add to the clamor."

Butler singles out six specific dangerous conditions at a work site. First of all, some equipment operators, especially younger workers or new-hires, need to know how to enter and exit a machine."OEMs recommend a three-point contact while climbing on or off a piece of equipment," he says. "If you follow those procedures, you probably won't get hurt."

The second danger applies to older workers. They sometimes become complacent and accustomed to their surroundings. For example, the threat is real when equipment is backing up. "Back-up alarms give a false sense of security," Butler says. "When you get on a jobsite with multiple pieces of equipment, everyone becomes accustomed to hearing them. I knew a crane operator who was killed when a concrete truck backed up over him. He simply walked out behind the truck."

A third dangerous situation involves machines, such as excavators, that can reach up and touch power lines. "There again, people become complacent and just forget about the wires," Butler says. "There are two dangers here. One, you can electrocute the operator. Two, if an excavator comes into contact with a power line, the jolt going through that machine is like a welding iron. It leaves what I call little BBs from the arc. Later on, the BBs can get into the valve spool and the operator can't control the stick."

Fourth, in an excavation more than four feet deep, some type of shoring or trench boxes must be used to protect from collapsing sides.

Fifth, putting together huge units, such as cranes, requires a level area for the assembly. Sometimes stone or gravel is laid down to support the equipment, Butler says. "They haul in limestone and lay down four-inch rocks. That makes it hard to walk on for the mechanic on the ground who is carrying heavy parts. Preparing for machinery set up and tear down is very important."

Finally, a danger Butler calls "a hot topic today," involves quick couplers. "There have been several deaths because of this," he says. "Three deaths occurred in Ohio because buckets fell off the machines."

Although quick-coupler attachments have certain procedures that operators are trained to use, says Butler, "they don't follow the training. Take a water-line job, for instance. The operator might use a 48-inch bucket for the excavation. Then he'll slide the box ahead and work inside the box or he will switch buckets and put a smaller bucket on. He'll do this 20 or 50 times a day. When he switches buckets, he doesn't follow the procedure to make sure it is connected and locked. He swings back over and the bucket falls off."

Although there are several types of bucket attachments available, 90 percent, says Butler, are hydraulic. "They have a hydraulic cylinder with a latch that fastens around the bucket pin," he says. "There's also a safety light in the cab that tells the operator when the bucket is latched. But what happens is, when the operator tries to latch onto that pin, he hasn't fully engaged the bucket. The latching mechanism will close, but the machine doesn't know if it closes around the pin or around air. The equipment only knows that it's closed."

Todd Perrine, CEM, vice president, product support at Leslie Equipment, a John Deere distributorship, says fleet managers should also be aware of hidden work-site dangers. "There are a lot of unknown hazards, such as jobsites that are built on hazardous waste dumps," he says. "Mechanics and vehicles go out there without really knowing what they might be touching."

Based on his front-line experience, Butler says lack of training makes a jobsite dangerous. "If you don't know a danger exists, or a risk exists, you're apt to find it unexpectedly," he says.

"I know of a young lad who was hired several years ago to help on a pavement recycling machine," says Butler. "He obviously didn't understand the dangers of that job. On his first or second day at the jobsite, he climbed up on the equipment and, some way or another, got his leg down in the machine. The auger took his leg off. Because of the resulting lawsuit, the boy does not have to worry about income for the rest of his life, although he does have to live with the loss of a limb. As for the contractor, he certainly could have afforded some training."

Training at Leslie Equipment is done in two ways, says Perrine. Because the market area served by the distributor includes mining operations, Leslie employees, before they go into a mine shaft, go through 30 to 40 hours of training that meets requirements of the Federal Institute of Equipment Mining and Safety. "Then they have to have eight-hour refresher courses every year," he says.

In addition, Perrine plans to launch a weekly publication called Tool Box Talk that focuses on safety issues. Circulated to all company work crews, employees will be required to read the publication, sign it, and send it back in. "That will allow us to track who has and who has not read it," says Perrine.

Another method used by Leslie Equipment to raise safety awareness among employees is to conduct monthly shop inspections to check such things as rigging, shop cleanliness, exposed outlets or wiring that could shock someone, and trip hazards.

As for the city fleet in Madison, says Vanden Brook, training focuses on technicians who work on fleet equipment. To climb further up the career ladder, technicians are encouraged to receive training through the Automotive Service Certification program.

In addition to training, fleet professionals can take other steps to make a work site safer, Butler says. "You've always got fall hazards at a building site, so attention to general housekeeping is important. Supplies need to be picked up. Don't have welding leads, extension cords, water hoses and discharge hoses lying around. And floor openings should have warning signs. You might have people trained in site-specific rules, but a mechanic coming in from outside may not know that a piece of plywood is covering the opening. I've seen sites where they don't put anything at all over the opening."

As for equipment, Butler says, "Every OEM publishes guidelines. Operators and managers should be familiar with them. Everyone tells you to do a walk-around inspection. The things that get missed are pins — keeper pins, retaining bolts that are missed. When a pin comes out, sooner or later a part of the equipment will fall off."

Butler advises starting the inspection while still 50 feet from the machine. At that distance, any brake or hydraulic fuel leaks or flat tires are easily spotted.

Check for worn tires. If they need replacing, do it, not just because of safety, but also to prevent further downtime on the machine. Of course, check lights, look for broken glass, cracked windows that obscure the operator's view, make sure the wipers work, and check the lugs to see if any are missing.

Butler believes strongly in ensuring that machine controls are all free when the machine is first moved. "Make sure steering is responsive," he says. The operator needs to move the equipment a short distance and stop it to check the brakes. Don't forget the parking brake, as well, or the seat belts.

One simple step that fleet managers can take to make jobsites safer, says Perrine, is to go to the job trailer first. "They will do a hazardous analysis with you and go over any hazards — chemical lines, wires, blasting areas. You should do this before you even go out to work on the equipment. They will tell you if you need to wear hearing protection or if you need steel-toe shoes." In short, he says, "a quick stop at the office trailer will give you information right up front to keep you from getting into trouble."

Safety reaches beyond personnel, equipment, and bricks and mortar. It also involves adhering to both federal and state regulations for both motor vehicles, such as dump trucks, and off-road units such as graders. One falls under Department of Transportation jurisdiction; others are regulated by OSHA. Combined with whatever state and local rules apply, staying legal can turn into a high-wire balancing act.

Vanden Brook, however, has handled the regulations problem for Madison's fleet this way: For every piece of equipment purchased by the city, he says, "we create the ABCs—A service, B service and C service. Part of that includes the safety inspection which is based on the manufacturer's recommendations," he says. "We go through the operator's manual of the vehicle and whatever is mounted on it — dump truck, garbage truck — and look at what the OEM recommends for servicing and inspections."

All that information is built into a written sheet so the technicians know what to look for. "After you've done the same garbage truck a dozen times," you don't need the sheet very often," Vanden Brook says. "But to start with, you do." The up-front cost of setting up based on OEM recommendations "is well worth it," he says. "The OEM recommendations will take into account all those government regulations."

Safety is too far-reaching, too important, and if not practiced, too costly to treat lightly or ignore. "When you talk about safety," Vanden Brook says, "you've got what the technician does, what the operator does, what the supervisor does, and what the shop does, such as handling fluids correctly. If you do things safely, it just makes things easier for folks."