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August 2008

July 2008

Workplace Violence

Although it's been around for quite some time, violence in the workplace seems to be appearing more often in the news. You've probably come across a local article that details an employee being assaulted or sometimes even killed. Then there are the ones that make the national news that involve multiple fatalities. Sometimes it's a begrudged employee or a mentally ill patient. Others involve workers under stress or some type of post traumatic condition. 

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that there 564 workplace homicides in 2005. That's a significant number. Then consider that the vast majority of workplaces probably have not even broached the subject with their workers.

No matter what the reason for someone’s psychological state, there are guidelines available that help employers spot hazards that can prevent a workplace tragedy from happening.

How can you be proactive? There are three basic steps which at a minimum need to be covered:

  • Recognizing warning signs
  • Preventing occurrences
  • Responding to incidences

If those three items look like basic loss control measures, it’s because they simply are. The trick, as always, is to train your employees.  To learn more about prevention solutions and other resources available, visit OSHA’s  Workplace Violence.

Substance Abuse Testing After an Accident

I got an e-mail from my boss recently sharing a Maine client’s request for information regarding drug testing. Specifically, about drug and alcohol testing as part of their accident investigation process:

“Do you know, or can you point me in the right direction, regarding drug testing policies? Is it permissible to establish a blanket policy to require employees to be drug/alcohol tested as part of an accident/incident investigation?”

The Maine Substance Abuse Testing Law makes the establishment of a "blanket policy" somewhat complex—even following a suspected incident of abuse. Under this law, testing can be conducted either prior to hire or after, but if after hire there must be probable cause or testing must be conducted randomly. Furthermore, unless substance abuse testing is required by federal or commercial driver’s license regulations, a Maine employer is required to

  • submit a substance abuse testing policy to the Bureau of Labor Standards for approval before conducting testing,
  • use a testing laboratory that is licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and
  • for probable cause and random testing, employers with 20 or more employees, must have an Employee Assistance Program that is approved by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Substance Abuse.

The Maine Department of Labor has created model substance abuse testing policies to help employers and to ease their review of the policies. Your preferred medical provider is another key player in this process and can help you in implementing a post-accident substance abuse testing policy.

More information can be found in Substance Abuse Testing Report 2007, which is prepared by the Maine Bureau of Labor Standards.

Although this information references laws pertaining to the state of Maine, all states have similar agencies for guidance. If you are a MEMIC customer, and are unsure about the regulations and your responsibilities, contact your MEMIC safety consultant or an attorney.

A Story about Indoor Air Quality

The quality of the air we breathe at work has obvious ramifications linked to our health. Although this includes both outdoor and indoor environments, I want to talk about the indoor ones today.

Offices, factories and similar indoor workplaces typically have some type of air handling equipment. Its basic purpose is to provide clean air at a comfortable temperature. Some are very complex while others are simple mechanical ventilation. However, problems can arise when these systems are altered.

A coworker of mine, Mel Trefethen, recently told me about a building owner who tried to conserve energy by reducing the amount of fresh air added into the building. By recirculating more air, less energy is needed to heat or cool. It also increases the amount of carbon dioxide and other contaminants.

Employees began to develop dry, itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, and headaches. These symptoms occur when carbon dioxide levels reach 800 to 1,000 parts per million. Even though this is well below the OSHA permissible exposure limit of 5,000 parts per million, the symptoms and discomfort, in this case, were real.

Preventive maintenance of HVAC systems is critical in minimizing indoor air quality issues at any time. And what this building owner did not know was that special efforts need to be taken when you decrease the system’s energy use.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published a wonderful guide for building owners titled:

Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers

This publication provides background information, sources of indoor air contaminants, survey strategies, control methods, and many forms and checklists to help identify and mitigate potential indoor air quality problems.

Occasionally, unintended consequences can happen when trying to do the right thing, such as conserving energy. Proper planning and preparation can eliminate harmful outcomes and create a safe, healthy, and energy efficient work environment instead.

Excavations Can Equal Graves

Here is a morbid anxiety that sometimes can kick in on a construction site:

Fear of being buried alive
Fear of being placed in a grave while still alive as a result of being incorrectly pronounced dead. The abnormal, psychopathological version of this fear is referred to as taphophobia (from Greek taphos, meaning "grave"), which is translated as "fear of graves.”

Every day equipment opens up the earth and untold thousands step into trenches, foundations and holes. Although their tasks may vary widely once in these excavations, workers are exposed to the same risk—accidental burial by soil collapse. With that in mind, the fear of being buried alive can be considered a survival instinct.

To meet minimum federal standards, there are numerous steps employers must take when trenching or excavating. They include but are not limited to:

  • Having a competent person onsite at all times
  • Conducting a soil classification to determine its stability and the corresponding protective system needed
  • Sloping or benching (forming a series of horizontal steps) per the type of soil
  • Providing stairways, ladders or ramps for entry and exit
  • Removing water accumulation
  • Testing air quality for low oxygen, hazardous fumes and toxic gases

If you are asking yourself: "I wonder if we are doing all these steps," then it's time to go to the source, which is the OSHA Standards for the Construction Industry, specifically, 29 CFR part 1926, subpart P.

This section will give you the needed guidance to protect your employees in one of construction’s more hazardous exposures. OSHA reports the fatality rate for excavation is 112% higher than the rate for general construction.

Also visit OSHA’s Construction Etool on trenching and excavating regulations.

Roadway Construction Etiquette

Every summer the warm weather brings out the roadwork crews. Although reduced speeds and stop and go driving can be frustrating for drivers—commercial and public alike—it is necessary to maintain the infrastructure.

If you think about it, it can be frustrating for road crews, too, having to work very close to vehicles passing through their work zone. It’s quite often hot, dusty and machinery is moving all the time. And then you get someone going 55 mph in a 35 mph zone. The workers can't control the environmental conditions and now a speeding driver increases everyone’s injury potential. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that every day there are two deaths associated with work zone crashes in the U.S.

Road work zones aren’t going away, so employers need to not only have “work zone etiquette” as part of their driver training but go a step further and issue an annual reminder about risks in the summertime, including work zones.

A good driver will always:

  • Get the big picture. This is an old adage and refers to being prepared for what's around the bend. Signs indicating construction are often posted miles before the work area. This lets traffic know which lane is closed, the new speed limit and to be alert.
  • Obey the posted speed limit in the work zone. The work zone is where workers are at their greatest risk, sometimes just an arms length away from traffic.
  • Follow at a safe distance. Construction vehicles are pulling in and out of the closed lane posing a potential hazard. Don’t draft the vehicle in front you.
  • Be cautious of the flag person. The vast majority of flaggers do this tough job very well. But there have been cases where communications have crossed and accidents have happened. My company has seen some very tragic cases of flaggers being seriously injured by vehicles. Don't lower your awareness just because somebody waves you on.


Deadly Falls "Up"

How can a fall "up" be deadly?  How can you fall "up" anyway? This post isn't about falling up at all, actually. It's about the fact that from 2003 to 2006 fatalities from falls have increased. It's an alarming statistic that continues to plague many industries.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data throughout many industries in the United States.  The yearly totals show an increase of 127 fatal falls over a three-year period. That's an increase of nearly 20 percent!


I am personally baffled due to a couple of observations dating back beyond 2003. One is the amount of fall protection training that is held annually. I know that our company has done around 250 workshops in that time that covered minimum fall protection requirements. And if you add all the other organizations and trade groups doing similar training, it is fair to say that awareness must have risen since 2003.  The other item to consider is improved equipment and fall arrest systems are widely available. If somebody really wants to protect someone from falling, then there's a device or method to do just that.

If your operations involve elevated work, it may be time for a review of how you're performing. OSHA has an OSHA Construction eTOOL that will walk you common hazards and how to avoid them.

"Fire" Truck Incident

There was a recent incident at a school project in Maine worth reviewing. It involved a dump truck that backed into a propane tank fill pipe. Once the pipe was broken, the propane discharged and ignited. The truck driver was burned as he escaped the cab and luckily will recover, but was fortunate to have walked away at all.

During the incident investigation, one item stood out as the root cause: communications. Simply put, the driver and the spotter directing the truck had a signaling breakdown. The cardinal sin of directing construction vehicles was broken—the driver lost sight of the signal man and before you knew it, all hell broke loose.

It's probably impossible to calculate how many vehicles are backing up on job sites each day across the nation. But the National Safety Council reports that one out of every four accidents can be blamed on poor backing techniques. The reason that most backings are uneventful is directly related to qualified drivers and qualified signalers doing their jobs.

When do you need a signal person?  Basic hazard evaluation will determine that. Are you in a field with nobody around or on a job site with a hundred people scurrying about?  Factor in other risks such as other equipment moving about, blind spots and potential property damage, and the need for someone dedicated to the safe movement of a vehicle is very clear.

Should you need to train employees involved with backing operations, there are many websites and documents available. One website I recommend often is It has a brief but concise lesson plan titled Heavy Equipment Backing that covers the basics. 

As always, once the basics are established, project management must add the finer details to monitor overall compliance.

Trouble for Hire

Here is a scenario that any business owner or human resources director would love: You need a new employee and, without even advertising, a young person walks in, not only able to do the job, but willing to take on additional tasks. They go on to retire from the company after 35 happy years of exemplary service. Happens every day, right?

Every outfit, from a residential contractor to a restaurant to manufacturing plant, knows that their success and stability lies within their employees. Yet there are still businesses, usually small to midsized, that set themselves up to fail because of their hiring practices. 

Excuses include: "I don't have time," "We are too small," and "I know a good man (or woman) when I see one." If you don't take the time on the front end, you may pay the price in many ways. And how can you be too small? A $20,000 back injury is a $20,000 back injury no matter what your size. In fact, who takes a more painful hit—the residential contractor or the shipyard? And if a small retailer with five employees is missing a person with an injury (or even perhaps a purported injury), isn’t it more of a problem than a 50-employee shop?

Bringing on new employees always has a degree of risk.  Fortunately, there are proven methods to minimize and in many cases eliminate the hiring of "trouble."

MEMIC has written a guide to better hiring practices that has saved many organizations the negative costs that may come with a new employee.

Some of the fair and legal hiring practices it covers include:

  • Six ways to publicize a job opening along with the advantages and disadvantages of each method,
  • tips on using application forms, and
  • what questions you should ask on a job interview and which to avoid.

For the complete guide, download “Five Steps to an Effective Hiring Practice.”

An Educational Opportunity Worth Considering

Anyone who's been a safety professional for a few years is eventually going to be asked by someone on the floor or job site “how did you get into this safety business anyway?” 

When I was first asked this very question some 20 plus years ago I answered honestly that I thought it was a worthwhile job to have.  When they asked “what training did you have to take," the answer was none. 

I, like the many safety professionals I've had the pleasure to work with over the years, started the same way. You had to be able to do two things: number one, know the OSHA standards for your particular industry and, number two, be able to deal with people.  Dealing with people has not changed. The educational requirements have.

Earning a certificate or degree no matter what the field is an obvious advantage compared to when I first got started. When looking at employee health and safety programs, the offerings have increased over the years but they’re still somewhat limited.

That's why, if you’re from my neck of the woods, a course titled “Safety and Risk Management” offered this fall by the University of Southern Maine (USM) through their Environmental, Safety and Health degree program may be of interest to someone looking for that formal education.

This course covers risk management process for industrial and commercial safety. Visit USM’s website for information on course ESH 342.

Summer Driving Refresher

As the temperatures go up, so do the amount of miles that Americans drive. Getting to and from vacation spots is a rite of summer and even the high price of fuel will not deter families from driving to distant locations. With this increased traveling, comes increased accident rates and the associated injuries and fatalities.

If you talk with any emergency response professional, most, if not all, will describe incident scenes they have responded to that were easily preventable if basic driving standards had been used.

If you have children riding with you, then safe driving practices need to be of even greater concern. It is estimated that 28% of children aged 14 and under die of "unintentional injuries" in a motor vehicle accident. Even more disturbing is that 55% of these kids were not wearing restraints.

Do the Basics

  • Seatbelts for everyone, every time. This preventative action has saved many from serious injury and death, yet it continues to be ignored.
  • Do not drink and drive. Approximately 40% of fatal highway-related fatalities involve alcohol. That's a lot of potentially risky driving behind you, next to you and going the other way.
  • Don’t speed. Speeding increases the risk of an accident due to vehicle handling and driver response time. Let's face it, there's a degree of risk in just getting there. Hurrying is a large reason why some never get there at all.
  • Make sure your vehicle is in safe condition. Lights, wipers and proper tire pressure need to be checked before hitting the road.

These basic safety rules, which every licensed driver was initially taught, are good rules of the road for both leisure or work driving.

This summer make a renewed commitment to follow them. Only through increased participation will a decrease in accident rates be realized.