When it comes to workplace safety, it can become easy to overlook the “small things.” For example, using small tools like a hammer or drill without a second thought. Or when someone takes seemingly “small risks” by failing to use fundamental personal protective equipment (PPE).
But “small” is relative. Losing a finger is not as horrific as losing a limb, but it is still disabling nonetheless and oftentimes is avoidable. No matter what you’re doing, think small — like good company safety managers do.
In this blog, we’ll cover ways to mitigate potential safety mistakes related to “small” hand tools and PPE by summarizing some U.S. Department of Labor guidelines. In short, those guidelines include:
Use the right tool for the job
You already know that a screwdriver is not a chisel, nor a Crescent wrench a hammer. But most of us have been guilty of using one hand tool to mimic another for the sake of convenience – even though they’re poor substitutes.
The screwdriver lacks a chisel’s tempered and sharpened edge. The adjustable wrench is without a hardened, flat surface designed for a percussive strike. Misusing a tool, therefore, is not only ineffective in most cases, but also unsafe. The unhardened edge can shatter, sending shards toward your eyes; the rounded surface of the wrench can slip off and strike your hand instead.
“I’ve been there and done that. Everyone has,” says John Flanagan, safety manager of North American Pipeline Services in Freehold, New Jersey. “Usually it is using a wrench instead of a hammer or a hammer as a pry bar — the right idea, the wrong tool.”
Examine each tool for damage before use, and do not use a damaged tool
If the handle of a tool, whether plastic, wood or metal, is cracked or burred, tag it as damaged and ask your supervisor for a replacement. A cracked handle can fracture when pressure is applied, possibly injuring the user.
You might be tempted to “fix” the handle with something like duct tape. But all that does is impart false confidence in the tool’s integrity.
Avoid Complacency and Properly Use the Correct PPE
Failure to don the correct PPE, such as eye and face protection, when using hand tools is mostly a consequence of complacency.
“When an employee has done something a million times, there is a complacency risk,” says Chris Ravenscroft, owner of Koberlein Environmental in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. He says the risk is increased by the fact that jobs in the field, versus in a factory, present a variety of unique situations and conditions. However, the hand tools remain the same in every case, and protective gear is designed to work in all those situations and conditions.
Operate a tool according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
If a drill job has the potential to penetrate a live electric circuit, safety rules require using an insulated drill to protect the user against shock. Wrapping the handle of an uninsulated drill in electrical tape – get this – does not insulate it. Shocker, right?
Despite what seems like common sense, some time-pressed workers do it anyway for psychological comfort. These are often the same employees who can be seen passing a drill from one level to another by dangling it from its cord, a mishandling that can lead to damage of the tool or injury of another worker.
Beyond the Labor Department guidelines
While the Labor Department guidelines are helpful, they don’t cover every contingency. How about falling hand tools, for instance? If a falling wrench doesn’t strike and injure someone working below, the tool’s fall at least requires a worker to descend to a lower level and retrieve it.
“A lot of times a worker doesn’t attach a tool to a tether, uses the tool, and then goes on working and the tool falls out of his pocket or hands. And there you go,” says Kyle Irwin, founder of Irwin’s Safety, a Canadian safety management firm. “In most cases, if they are tied off, then the tools do not become a hazard. The problem is you don’t see that tying-off happening enough.”
Bad safety habits are generally universal in nature, but local conditions can produce one error of judgment over another. For example, working in colder climates usually means bulkier clothing, increasing the chance of clothes being snagged by a rotating machine or catching fire if unknowingly pressed against a hot drill bit.
Ravenscroft listed a couple of small tools that in his experience have proven to be the most problematic for workers. One is a device that spins wire cable to scour clogged pipes.
“It requires hands-on operation, and that requires a level of awareness. It calls for the right kind of gloves that don’t catch the material and cause it to twist.”
The other tool is an Arctic Blaster, which uses hot water and steam to thaw pipes through a hose. “It’s very efficient, but it’s a personal burn hazard and a fire hazard. Techs know when they take these tools off the truck that they represent real danger,” Ravenscroft says. To offset the intrinsic danger of the thawing tool, its use is addressed in annual training and the process of working with the tool is reviewed regularly.
A sometimes-unspoken issue in respect to wearing PPE is comfort. Is discomfort a reasonable excuse for not donning a hard hat or bulky gloves?
“Yes and no,” Irwin says. “There definitely is ill-fitting equipment. But there are so many pieces of equipment manufactured: find one that will work. The larger problem is avoiding manufacturers’ recommendations. When using a respirator or dust mask, it should be a good fit, but a lot of people just grab a mask. That can give you false security that you’re being protected.
“Do what the manufacturers say you should do. It is the responsibility of an employer to see that employees follow the recommendations. It all boils down to everyone in a program taking some responsibility for himself.”
Flanagan acknowledges that equipment can be uncomfortable. “They are hard hats. I was in the service and had to wear a helmet. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing.” On the other hand, as safety manager, Flanagan says he tries to provide PPE that will be used. “I go out and order a couple dozen pair of gloves and say, ‘Here, try them out. Let me know how you like them. If you say it doesn’t work for you, OK, we’ll try something else.’ I try to accommodate each crew.”
Ravenscroft acknowledges that comfort “sometimes is an issue. So, making sure PPE is available and comfortable is as important as the expectation that employees will use it. We try to be understanding. Safety committee members are close to operations, and they know that safety glasses fog up and what can be done in that environment. We try to find the best glasses we can. The best might cost twice as much, but we’re not going to save a couple dollars and provide PPE that doesn’t work for our employees. It’s a balancing act.”
Seemingly small decisions like these by safety committees and managers are vital. They have a large impact on the lives of employees working in potentially dangerous situations.
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The unedited version of this article can be found here.