I once attended training for fleet drivers who frequently tow trailers. During discussion of attaching the trailer hitch to the truck, the instructor asked if the operators crossed the safety chains under the tongue when connecting. Everyone nodded yes. From the back of the room I asked, “Who knows why we cross the chains?” No one knew.
Here’s another example that shows the importance of knowing the why as well as the what in safety training. It has to do with preventing deadly explosions and a condition called “odorant fade,” where that rotten-egg odor we add to gas may disappear. In 2008, a natural-gas blast tore through a Hilton Hotel that was being built on the San Diego waterfront, damaging several floors and injuring 13 workers.
The investigation found that instead of venting the gas to the outside during line purging, workers relied on the distinctive natural gas odor to determine when the lines had been cleared. Although they were performing safety-critical tasks, they didn’t know safety-critical information. Over the last 10 years, I have asked over 100 pipefitters, safety professionals, foreman, project managers and plumbers across the world if they knew about odorant fade. Not one did.
Because natural gas has no odor, researchers have been exploring ways to provide warnings of leaks since at least 1880. Yet gas explosions continued to take lives for the next half century. An explosion in a New London, Texas, school in 1937 killed 295 students and teachers. To save funds, the school had used a kind of second-hand gas from the oilfields that had no odorant added.
Once when I asked my manager for approval to attend an annual safety conference, I was asked: “What else is there for you to learn?”
For me, safety implies a year-round dedication to learning and teaching. That’s what I did with gas explosions. At one conference, I learned about a catastrophe where a crew pumped natural gas into a new pipeline for a poultry plant. As the experts waited for the pressure gauge to rise, the building exploded around them. Survivors said they did not smell gas. Several years ago, I heard about another gas explosion in North Carolina during a boiler installation. Federal authorities had been called to the scene. I called the investigators and suggested odorant fade. The federal investigators were unaware of the condition.
Natural gas can lose the odorant added by physical and chemical processes. Information about how that happens is plentiful. The guidance explains how different types of pipe, moisture, rust, liquids and other substances can play a role. It’s all there, but first we need to know about the hazard, be curious enough to research it and share what we discover with people doing the work.
There’s always something else to learn, and teach, especially if we’re going to eliminate what I call the killing conditions, which take lives. If you have a newsletter, start a column entitled: “I didn’t know that.” Instead of a toolbox talk or Christmas tree safety session, discuss opioids, tow chains, odorant—anything that could hurt workers. From lead hidden in powder-actuated tools to the high incidence of suicide, we must take on any topic.
When someone dies, we often blame the individual rather than the tools they were provided, the system in which they were forced to work, or what we should have taught. Our focus must be on coaching workers, speaking bluntly on all these different subjects.
Tony O’Dea, a former colleague of mine and one of the best safety directors in the U.S., once said that “safety people are really walking lessons learned.” His view was that our moral responsibility is to share things we know that could kill. The gift is telling someone about a hazard before they encounter it.
About those tow chains: Crossing them is a very common practice that is required in five states. If the ball disengages from the truck, the tongue would strike the road and slide dangerously left or right. If the chains are crossed, the expectation is that the tongue will be cradled in the X formed by the crossing chains.
Years ago I asked a manager if I could share lessons learned and best practices from our firm with competitors. I was told “TJ … it’s not what you can do for the industry, it’s what you can do for us.” We can’t work that way anymore.
Thomas (T.J.) Lyons, eastern region safety, health and environment manager for Total Facility Solutions Inc., can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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