Safety Challenges, Mistakes and Misconceptions

COVID-19, staffing issues and technology have combined to heighten the challenge for managers and front-line technicians.

By Dan Hounsell, Senior Editor  

The COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly everything about the operations of institutional and commercial facilities. For maintenance and engineering managers, these changes prompted them to revisit and rethink nearly every building system and technician activity.  

The pandemic also affected front-line technician safety, both the way managers selected and provided training and, in some cases, the actual safety of technicians, according to Kristen Panella, founder of 2SAFE Consulting. In this Q&A, Panella offers his insights on the state of facility safety and issues affecting managers’ decisions on training to ensure technician safety.  

FacilitiesNet: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected safety in facilities? 

Panella: When COVID first hit, it essentially shut down a lot of workplaces, and specifically, safety training was shut down completely. You could not have your traditional training anymore. You could not have 15 people in a conference room and talk about various safety topics. The traditional training was almost eliminated for almost two years when COVID hit. So we had to be effective, and like everybody else, we had to revert to Zoom, Google Meets and Microsoft Teams. We did more virtual training, which I believe lost a lot of the value of safety training. Once COVID hit and we could not meet in person, safety training really took a big nosedive. 

One of the other impacts was that safety was done with a skeleton crew. If you had a manufacturing facility, you would have the essential workers at the plant, but you didn't necessarily have your safety professionals at the plant. Because you only had the necessary people there, sometimes when we got into, let's say, a confined space where you needed a three-person team or for protection where you needed a site monitor, that wasn't always the case. 

That knowledgeable person who was normally shutting off an electrical switch and was well-trained on arc flash, that didn't happen all the time. It really depended on who was on site. The restrictions that were put on with social distancing really took a toll on safety. 

FacilitiesNet: What are the ongoing safety challenges managers need to be aware of? 

Panella: No. 1 is lack of knowledge. I have to do a lot of accident investigations in various industries, and it's always, “I didn't know.” When you're in the field, you realize common sense is not too common. 

I'll give you a good example. I was at a facility, and a gentleman was in a forklift. It lifted him up, and he had to go into the racks and grab whatever the product is, go back on the forklift and come back down. He was not wearing fall protection. I said, "You're 20 feet in the air. Why aren't you wearing fall protection?” He said, “You're the first person to say anything about that.” 

(Workers are) often not getting the proper training they need, and if they do, the training isn't working because they're not getting the intelligence they need to do their jobs safely. which ties into standard operating procedures (SOP). I find a lot of companies don't have SOPs. Let's say an electrician is working at a facility, and he does the same routine maintenance activity on the electrical panel. There's often no set SOP for that individual to follow that would give him the knowledge: “I'm supposed to do this. I'm supposed to shut it off and lock it out and then work in there. I'm not supposed to work on live electricity.” 

No. 3 is that even if they do have an SOP, they're not following the SOP. The SOP often is just a written document that collects dust, and that's about it. The supervisor is not ensuring that his subordinates are following the proper SOP. A good example of this would be lockout tagout SOPs or the forklift SOPs. 

FacilitiesNet: What misconceptions do managers have about the role of OSHA in safety? 

Panella: The misconception is that OSHA is going to keep you safe. OSHA is not going to keep you safe. OSHA has rules and regulations that are the bare minimum. OSHA is the law, so you have to follow it, but it's not always the safest way to do something. It is literally the bare minimum. 

A better way to say that is OSHA makes laws, and there are other agencies out there that are more protective. A good example would be (the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI) and (the National Institute for Occupational Safety Health, or NIOSH). We heavily rely on ANSI and NIOSH, not so much OSHA. 

We consult ANSI and NIOSH for company regulations. What is our regulation on fall protection? We know what OSHA says, but that is the bare minimum, and we don't feel that that's actually safe, believe it or not. We're going to follow what ANSI and NIOSH say because we feel they are more protective. 

FacilitiesNet: What mistakes do you see most often among managers seeking safety training? 

Panella: Many times, I see managers select the wrong training. They have good intentions. They want their employees to have safety training, but whoever's making that decision might be led in the wrong direction. Maybe they just did an internet search, and the internet says everyone needs the OSHA 30 (training courses) where that might not necessarily be true for your company. 

A facility manager might hear the buzzword — OSHA 10, or OSHA 30 — and thinks, “We need safety training, so we're going to get the OSHA 10 and the OSHA 30,” but OSHA 10 and OSHA 30 are really for the construction industry. Facilities managers completely miss the requirement of annual OSHA training. 

The other mistake is not defining roles and responsibilities. Throwing all your employees into a lockout/tagout training session is unnecessary and sometimes a little daunting. If you're not expecting your maintenance worker to work on an electrical panel that has to be lockout/tagout, he doesn't necessarily need that training. But your electricians that are doing that on a regular basis absolutely need that type of training. That goes a little bit further with like arc flash training. Who needs arc flash training? Who doesn't? 

FacilitiesNet: What trends are you seeing related to facility safety? 

Panella: Little by little, I have started to see companies move out of this 1980s safety program that they have with pencil and paper. Many, many companies still use pencil and paper for their safety programs. They still have sign-in sheets for training certificates. They're still printing out sheets of paper for their forklift checklists. They're printing out pieces of paper for their confined space permit. 

I see many companies trying to move away from that because the administrative costs and time associated with that are astronomical. They're moving toward completely electronic forms, electronic forms, electronic checklists. They're looking into software products to help them manage their safety programs. 

When you do pencil and paper, nothing is searchable. Let's say it was a training session that was done two years ago, and you have to find that training certificate. It's very difficult if that's in an HR binder somewhere. But if it's in software, it's easily searchable by date, by topic, by name, as opposed to the daunting task of going through old paper. 

The future trend is away from pencil and paper and to an electronic safety program. With that comes cellphone use. I see cell phones being part of the safety program. With cell phones, you can scan, you can take pictures, you can upload documents, you can send alerts, you can do a lot with a company cell phone for the safety program. 

FacilitiesNet: Is OSHA encouraging the shift from pencil and paper records to electronic records? 

Panella: No, OSHA has actually done the opposite. OSHA’s laws are archaic. OSHA started in the 70s, and it was really hitting the ground running in the ‘80s. If you read the regulation, it literally says that you need to have a hardcopy readily available to employees. But again, that was written before computers. 

An example of that is chemical safety and safety data sheets. Some companies are moving to an electronic form of data sheets because they're searchable, easily accessible, very easy to manage, easy to update. But OSHA purists will say you still need to have a binder on site at all times because of how the regulation was written. Some people follow that, some people don't. 

Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facilities market. He has more than 30 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management. 

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  posted on 3/23/2023   Article Use Policy

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