Personal safety

By and |  February 1, 2014

With a little free time over the holidays, someone I highly regard was doing work at home. The plan was to reposition a DVD-VCR player that did not fit the shelf it was on after the cable company put in a new box. To drop the DVD-VCR to the next shelf, a hole was needed in a 1 1/2-in.-thick hardwood shelf to pass wires through.

There was concern about confusion reconnecting wires so everything was left connected. It seemed simple to drill while keeping an eye on the wires to not contact them. However, the first hole at 1 in. was not large enough to accommodate a plug that needed to pass through. A 2-in. diameter saw bit was at hand, but it was a little short for a 1 1/2-in.-thick shelf. It was believed that with enough pressure, the cut could be made.

With force and persistence, the hole was completed – suddenly with an explosion of electrical wires. The wires were forgotten with the exertion of pressing the drill. This was a case of a normally cautious person dispensing with precautions. Fortunately, there was no injury, but only because the drill was insulated and regular eyeglasses were sufficiently protective.

There was a price to pay for this wrongheaded shortcut. The rest of the day had to be spent searching stores for replacement electric cables.  The “shortcut” was anything but. It may be human nature to take risks like this from time to time, but it is human nature that needs to be reined in.

The bigger point
In 40 years of accident investigations, I have observed how simple jobs can result in sudden injury or death. We may believe we can dispense with precautions for expediency. We can tell ourselves something will just take a minute and nothing will happen. (“The thin ice I am on will not break; not right this minute,” we tell ourselves.) Many have thought that way with dire consequences.

In the workplace, with an MSHA or OSHA inspector nearby, no one for a minute would think of violating safety requirements. Left to ourselves, however, the temptation is always there.

A mistake in the workplace can take away a life, and with it all dreams, aspirations and potential accomplishments. Family and friends are devastated. The entire workforce is upset. A pall descends over the operation for a long time. And almost immediately, protracted government investigations begin. Severe legal consequences can follow.

From accidents, I have learned there are times of especially elevated danger:
■ If an employee does not regularly do a job, past training may be inadequate. Many accidents are attributed to deficient training.
■ Many of us are disinclined to seek guidance even though we may not be certain how to do a job. Lack of understanding can be fatal.
■ Even experienced employees encounter difficulties – and have been killed while improvising. If something goes wrong in the middle of a job, that is a time of danger.
■ Not blocking equipment capable of causing injury has caused many deaths.
■ So has not locking out electrical equipment.

What went wrong?
Analyzing the non-workplace case I described from the outset:
■ Training was lacking. There was insufficient knowledge of the wiring so the wires were not unplugged.
■ It was assumed solutions could be figured out as the job proceeded.
■ Something went wrong. The first hole was too small and improvisation began.
■ Safety procedures were sacrificed for perceived convenience.
■ Safety glasses were not worn.
■ An improper tool was used because a better drill bit was not immediately available.
■ The wires might have been protected with a barrier, but they were not.
■ Worst of all, everything remained energized.

This type of problem is all too common outside work. At work, it is the most important problem for us to address. Training, reminders, reinforcement and discipline in the interest of employee well-being all help.

A good example is indispensable. Ultimately, though, personal commitment is most important – at work and at home.

Take note
A mistake in the workplace can take away a life. Family and friends are devastated. The entire workforce is upset. A pall descends over the operation. And almost immediately, protracted government investigations begin.

Legal editor Michael T. Heenan is an attorney at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, one of the nation’s largest labor and safety law firms. He can be reached at

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