Equipment is an essential part of any worksite. So much so, that many of us take it for granted. Every time a worker turns a key, pushes a button, or moves a toggle, we expect it to behave in a certain way. But what happens when it doesn’t?
Equipment failure is directly linked to the majority of construction accidents every year. Whether a crane falls over, a loader drops its load, or a generator catches fire, these accidents present a very real risk for workers. In fact, in 2016, equipment failure was responsible for almost 15 percent of worker fatalities, and it is regularly listed as one of the top six leading causes of all work-related deaths.
Not everything is preventable, but implementing a safety management system is a great place to start in the quest for a safe workplace.
The speed and impact of equipment failure
When we think of catastrophic events caused by equipment failure, we tend to picture them in full Hollywood Technicolor—scenes from The Towering Inferno, perhaps, or pick-an-action-movie where an emergency unfolds in heart-pounding slow motion. But serious and even fatal accidents and incidents are rarely so dramatic. They can and do happen in an instant, and often the workplace injury or tragedy happens because of the speed and lack of warning: there is simply no time to problem-solve, or even to get out of the way.
Take a relatively common scenario in any large city or real estate development. As a multistory building such as a condominium complex goes up, exterior cladding is applied, floor by floor. This technique is especially common in areas that are affected by extreme weather, where waiting until the structure as a whole is complete and then installing exterior facing from the top down is not feasible.
Raising and installing discrete, pre-assembled pieces of a building is more cost-effective than fabricating on site. This means, however, that often huge elements—such as exterior terraces, or a floor’s worth of brick facing—are installed in one swoop (sort of like snapping Lego pieces together). These giant pieces are raised many floors into the air by cranes on the ground, where they sway and hang as they are installed.
In this scenario, imagine an equipment failure: an older crane, overburdened one time too many, suddenly fails. As it comes crashing down to earth, picking up speed with every foot it travels, so does its load. In this case, the concrete-slab terrace shell of a sixth-floor condo comes with the crane, whipping out on its steel tether before smashing to the ground beneath it.
In this scenario, the onsite danger lay not with the machine operators and human error, but with the aging and overextended equipment itself. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32 percent of all 2014 workplace fatalities were caused by falls, with the most-common fall height coming in at over 30 feet.
This scenario is a great example of how a company’s safety management system could have potentially saved lives. When tragedies involving out-of-date or overtaxed equipment occur, it becomes very clear (often when it is sadly too late) that having an effective risk assessment and management program in place can prevent such accidents. “Safety and Health” magazine recently reminded its readers that safety professionals should always have a seat at the table when design decisions are made. In this case, not only might the elderly crane have been spotted and replaced at an early juncture, but effective safety management software could have plotted possible stress fractures in the existing risk management framework and worked to fill the gaps for a safe and healthy work environment. An effective emergency response plan also reduces the risk of further harm after an accident has taken place.
Exploring the application and importance of safety management
While it is true that some workplace accidents cannot be foreseen or forsworn, the vast majority of incidents can be nipped in the bud by early detection. Or, at the very least, properly and speedily crisis-managed in the aftermath, through effective safety programs. A safe working environment doesn’t happen by accident.
Think of these systems as like a primary care physician: you can, of course, consult them when your business is “sick” and they will help you to return to health, but they are best used for their preventive expertise. They can be an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff but are great for building fences at the top. Having an effective safety management system in place is like getting an annual physical in many ways. It shows you where you are in great shape, where you might need to clean up your act, and where immediate action should be taken to avoid serious consequences.
But it’s not all gloom and avoidance of serious injury—improved workplace health and safety is good for the bottom line. As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), describes, safety practices and programs also have measurable, positive effects on the profitability of your business. They have been linked to:
improvements in workplace production and quality,
better employee morale,
improved employee recruiting and retention, and
- a more favorable image and reputation (among customers, suppliers, and the community).
Using safety management systems to reduce heavy equipment dangers
In the scenario of the crane collapse we studied in this article, it’s possible to see exactly how a risk management plan, realized through effective safety management software, could become a holistic tool to:
stop accidents before they happen,
diagnose root causes in order to solve for future solutions,
increase worker confidence and boost morale in the company, and
grow your profits and boost your standing and longevity as a community business.
Workplace safety is important in any industry, but construction has scope for major disaster in situations like the one outlined above. Safety management spans a wide range of scenarios, and each of them could benefit from the use and implementation of safety management software.