It’s quite simple: Following safety rules is the foundation to eliminating injuries. Commonly, a safety presenter will say that safety rules are “written in blood.” At one time, such dramatic statements were a way to get attention and illustrated the seriousness of following safety rules. Today, more highly educated workers demand less drama and more facts. Let’s face it, safety rules are in place because hazards exist and people were injured. Whether the site is a coal-fired, gas-fired, or a nuclear power plant, hazards are part of the work and must be controlled to prevent injury.

The General Duty Clause of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act holds employers responsible for providing employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards, and employees are required to follow the rules that protect them from the hazards. To create a safe workplace, employers and employees must be able to recognize, evaluate, and control hazards in the workplace. Empirical research of incident reports and interviews with hundreds of workers show that employees who were injured on the job did not “see” the hazard that injured them. Observationally, employees and employers, operational leaders, and safety specialists often walk by recognizable hazards without controlling or fixing them.

For these reasons, identification of workplace hazards must be a constant task of employers and employees who are directly connected to the work. A formal hazard identification process ensures no hazard goes uncontrolled. This formal process guides the creation of safety rules that act as controls to prevent injuries. In the process, two types of hazards must be considered: those that are inherent in the work (such as steam, pressure, heat, cold, and height) and those created by performing work.

During the work, employees often pull hoses, string power cords, wash equipment, make repairs, turn valves, and create potentially unrecognized hazards. Such hazards are the top reasons for workplace injuries, and the means of controlling them is trained employees who will “find and fix” them. Employees trained in the importance of situational hazard recognition (SHR) are less likely to become complacent about hazards.

Employees responsible for planning work may walk to a job location and pass hazards such as spills, hoses across walkways, or damaged equipment because they are focused on the hazards to be assessed for the next job, not the current situation (Figures 4 and 5). When employees practice SHR in the workplace, they understand that hazards change with every task.

4. Slip and slide. Floors at power plants that are covered with grease and other oily substances, or powders, can be significant causes of accidents. Courtesy: Potter and Associates International Inc.

5. Don’t get hosed. A forgotten hose left in a walkway can cause unsuspecting employees to fall and injure themselves. Courtesy: Potter and Associates International Inc.

In the past, safety training was focused on teaching employees to look for pinch points, rotating equipment, sharp edges, and other such potential hazards. A different training approach is needed to sharpen workers’ ability to see the hazards, enable them to take action when they see them, and teach them the fundamentals of making the workplace safe. This simple, straightforward approach can be applied by everyone at the job site.

Four Simple Categories of Hazards

Many methods exist to identify hazards. Some are quite complex. Four simple categories are presented below.

Employee (EM). Employees become a hazard when they fail to follow safety procedures and fail to wear personal protective equipment. Poorly trained employees are also a hazard. Training has become a target of the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and other regulating bodies. For example, the NRC requires on-time training attendance and high levels of participation, with management and employees held accountable.

New employees pose a different hazard, as they are often unaware of what can hurt them. An in-depth experiential orientation focused on educating new employees on known hazards is essential.

Equipment (EQ). Equipment introduces recognized and unrecognized hazards. Safety engineers and professionals work to identify and train users in safe handling of equipment and often the operational hazards such as rotating equipment, pinch-points, and hot parts are included on job briefing forms. Other factors create additional equipment hazards.

Equipment that is poorly maintained in the workplace is a hazard. Such equipment is not only a physical hazard but also a mental one. Operators who have inspected the equipment, found it unsafe, and reported it—only to be told, “go ahead and run it this time”—tend to just check the boxes on the inspection form. Equipment operators then begin to have the attitude that their organizations are not serious about safety. The result is a declining safety culture.

When equipment is purposely operated outside of the manufacturer’s specifications, another hazard is introduced.

Environment (EV). Standard environmental hazards such as rain, snow, ice, heat, cold, and wind are obvious and easy to identify but are not always recognized as the compounding factors to injuries. When combined with employees or equipment, this category becomes important.

Energy (EN). Energy sources such as electricity, steam, pressure, and hydraulic and stored energy are readily recognized by workers in the utility industry. An often unrecognized source of energy is a moving piece of equipment being operated in adverse environmental conditions.

The collapse of the “Big Blue” heavy lift crane is a prime example. In 1999, the Big Blue crane, which was almost 600 feet tall, collapsed during construction of the Miller Park baseball stadium in Milwaukee, Wis., with a load of 450 tons on the hook. Three people were killed. A subsequent investigation revealed that although the crane operator tried to calculate the effects of side winds on the crane, he had failed to take into account the winds’ impact based upon the load the crane was lifting. In this case, employee, equipment, environment, and energy combined for catastrophic failure that killed three people.

Empowering Employees

A brief article cannot cover all the hazards that must be controlled in the power generation industry. A 30-minute safety meeting on the subject is insufficient. Hazard recognition and control requires time to ensure understanding and appropriate application related to each task. It is the cornerstone of an effective safety process.

Enabling every employee to “find and fix” the hazards found in each situation is critical. Hence, if all employees follow the rules, they are likely to be injury-free. The mindset shifts from one of ”safety is about luck” to one where individuals understand that they have significant control over their own safety. The outcome is that nobody gets hurt.

—Contributed by Carl Potter ([email protected]), a certified safety professional  and certified management consultant ( who has spent more than 17 years in the electric utility industry and has consulted to high-risk industries for more than 20 years.