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It Only Takes a Second for an Injury to Occur

September 10, 2015

safe-modelA couple of months ago I began volunteering at a local food and clothing bank that serves the less fortunate in central Texas. I’m not afraid of a little hard work, especially since I spend most of my day sitting in front of a computer screen, so when they asked me what I wanted to do I opted to help in the warehouse where goods are sorted, boxed, and loaded onto trucks for distribution. On my first day I was quite impressed with the pace by which the warehouse employees work, but I quickly realized that this was necessary due to the sheer volume of items brought in and out on a daily basis. However, one thing that did not impress me was the lack of safety training I received.

The warehouse manager quickly walked me through the steps of sorting and processing items, where to move full pallets, and how to shrink wrap them in preparation for loading. I was barely able to get out a couple questions before she said “Okay, that’s about it. Let me know if you need anything,” and disappeared to the offices. Needless to say, I was pretty shocked. I had no prior experience with any of the equipment or materials in the warehouse, I had no idea what I was doing, and I even had to ask for gloves, but within 10 minutes of entering the warehouse for the first time ever, I was moving double-stacked pallets of clothing with a power jack.

Although I have a fairly low-risk safety style myself, the work I’ve done to-date on job safety caused me to immediately question my ability to safely perform the tasks asked of me. Despite my intuition, I scanned the space to look for danger areas and hazards and gave it a shot, but after encountering two near misses in the first couple hours I decided to take action. I first spoke to one of the forklift operators who informed me that all paid staff are thoroughly trained to operate approved equipment, and vehicle operators’ certifications (including appropriate safety training) are paid for by the bank. However, he didn’t have much to say in terms of safety training for general staff beyond the minimally-required OSHA standards. Then I went to chat with the warehouse manager about the information I gathered and my safety concerns, and I am happy to report that she was very responsive. I have since spent half of my volunteer time working with the management team on updating and improving their safety training program to include more job-specific strategies and ensure that all workers, both paid and volunteer, receive proper safety training. Hopefully, they stick with these changes after I move on, but at the very least I’m glad that I raised awareness for safety issues in this organization.

Part of updating the safety program involved touring the warehouse to identify the greatest present hazards and safety risks, and with that knowledge I felt comfortable enough to perform the manual labor that I originally signed up for. I have since been very careful to adhere to all four factors of the Select International 4 Factor S.A.F.E. ModelTM, and things were going smoothly…until two days ago.

I was working with a forklift operator to load double-stacked pallets into a truck. As the operator pushed the forks into the bottom pallet of a stack I was standing to the side to hold the stack steady, when I noticed loose shrink wrap coming off the side of the box. Without thinking or saying anything to the operator, I briefly stepped in front of the forklift to tuck the wrap back into the box. At the same moment, the operator began to raise the pallets, and the corner of the fork scraped my leg. Thankfully it was only a light scratch with little bleeding, but had I been standing just an inch closer to the vehicle, I would have been dealing with a deep and sizeable gash. I was certainly not exhibiting caution nor aware of my surroundings at that moment.

So there I was, only a couple months into a part-time volunteer position, in a little bit of pain and quite embarrassed at myself, given my efforts to improve safety in the warehouse. But I tell this story to demonstrate that it only takes a second of letting one’s guard down for a safety incident to occur. Even the most safety-conscious employees can experience and accident or injury if they are not vigilant about safety during key moments of task performance. As safety leaders, we must emphasize to workers the importance of staying focused on the job, especially when working with dangerous or powerful equipment. It is good to have a healthy fear of the hazards of your job so that you never become complacent and open yourself up to unnecessary risk.

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Craig White Craig White is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance. He has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.