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From the Neck Up

Published: 18th Dec 2014

Protection above the neck is vital in high-hazard work areas such as on construction sites. This paper will examine some principal risk controls to protect workers from the neck up.

Identifying hazards in the workplace involves finding items and situations that could potentially cause harm to people.

Hazards generally arise from the following aspects of work and their interaction:

•  Physical work environment

•  Equipment, materials and substances used

•  Work tasks and how they are performed

•  Work design and management

In this author's experience, many organisations have a litany of potential hazards in the workplace. Sometimes these hazards may not be initially obvious, but using the principles of risk managementand testing their efficacy should ensure that any and all potential risks are managed. The findings of a risk assessment will go on to enlighten decisions regarding whether a workplace is indeed ‘safe’.

The workplace

Regularly walking around the workplace and observing how things are done can help you to predict what could or might go wrong. Look at how people actually work, how plant and equipment is used, what chemicals are around and what they are used for, what safe or unsafe work practices exist, as well as the general state of housekeeping.

Things to look out for include:

•  Does the work environment enable workers to carry out tasks without risks to health and safety? For example, is there adequate space, ventilation and lighting?

•  How suitable are the tools and equipment for the task and how well are they maintained?

•  Have any changes occurred in the workplace that may affect health and safety?

Hazards are not always obvious. Some hazards can affect health over a long period of time, for example, when stressed by workplace bullying, or suffering with fatigue from shift work.

It is also important to think about hazards that you may bring into your workplace in the form of new, used or hired goods; for example, the insulation on a hired welding set may be worn.

As you walk around, you may spot straightforward problems and action should be taken on these immediately, for example, cleaning up a spill. If you encounter a situation that holds immediate or significant danger to people, move those persons to a safer location first and then – if you are competently trained to do so – attend to the hazard urgently.

Make a list of all the hazards you can find, including the ones you know are already being dealt with, to ensure that nothing is missed. A checklist designed to suit your workplace may help you to find and make a note of hazards.

When entering a workplace try to gauge  the 'safety temperature'. Do this by promptly determining the safety of the workplace’s risk appetite. The most useful impression to gain insight into an organisation’s safety culture is at the coalface, so begin at site level to determine attitudes to safety.

On first impressions your senses will guide you. Your nose will automatically alert you to toxic odours. Your eyes will scan from left to right, up and down and side to side. You will analyse your surroundings and make the assumption - safe, or not safe. After all, these are basic survival instincts, right? It is baffling, therefore, that so many workers choose to work every day surrounded by potential risks.

These are the human elements that Maslow contemplates when striving to reach the apex of self-actualisation, as seen in Figure 1. Human factors, however, suggest people will automatically opt for the simplest method of doing things. Some may call it complacency; others risk tolerance. This risk appetite will slowly deteriorate over time when faced with the same potential hazards when there is no consequence to that potential risk.

If you were able to map it out, what are the key risk regions you would let yourself travel to? Moreover, what would get your immediate attention? Personally, I always ask myself what’s the worst thing that could happen to me or my fellow workmates and work backwards from there. Is there a Plan B is my next thought, after a quick mental risk assessment to determine my risk appetite. Conversely, when it comes to potential major hazards - especially ones from the neck up - my risk appetite is considerably reduced.

Some hazards are part of the work process, such as mechanical hazards, noise or toxic properties of substances. Other hazards result from equipment or machine failures and misuse, chemical spills and structural failures.

A piece of plant, substance or a work process may have many different hazards. Each of these hazards needs to be identified. For example, a production line may have dangerous moving parts, noise hazards associated with manual tasks and psychological hazards due to the pace of work.

This article examines potential hazards from the neck up, which are found in practically every industry. From sitting awkwardly in your chair which affects your neck, to getting something in your eyes that obstructs your vision, as well as breathing in toxic fumes and that subordinal background hum that may potentially cause noise induced hearing loss (NIHL).

The list is endless, however, some work environments pose inherently greater risks to workers' heads, faces and eyes. Protection above the neck is principally significant in high-hazard work areas and this paper will examine some principal risk controls for above the neck protection. Taking a top down, top tier approach, this article will seek to engage the hierarchy of risk control.

Hierarchy of controls

The following sections detail the hierarchy of controls for risks to the head and neck faced by ground level workers in the construction industry.

Elimination

Design out the risk. Don’t use the equipment. Don’t use the process.

The best way to eliminate the risk is to design it out, remove the hazard or discontinue the hazardous work activity. The best solution is to remove the hazard altogether, by stopping persons working above that could drop something onto the ground level worker’s head, thereby eliminating the potential hazard.

Substitution

Find a safer piece of equipment or better way to perform the process, such as by substituting the hazardous part of the work activity with a safer option.

It's a well-known fact that the construction industry is one of the most dangerous sectors to work in and as such the creation of safe working environments for site operatives is a priority for many. The use of edge protection systems has undoubtedly created safer conditions for those working at height, but this is only part of the picture. Injuries to persons on the ground from falling debris are alarmingly high and in some cases these injuries relate to the public.

While there are protection solutions that can be incorporated on construction sites, such as temporary tunnels, they are often costly or restrictive. One height safety solution currently under development is a safety net that performs several functions during the building process, not only forming an effective fall-arrest system for the workforce, but also protecting pedestrians and workers from falling objects and debris. For many organisations the solution is simply to wear a hard hat or bump cap, but the risk is still there. This is not elimination, but substitution. To eliminate the problem, overhead employees could work different hours to those at a lower level.

Engineering

Engineering controls involve modifying the process or equipment. This can mean changing the equipment or the environment in which the work activity is undertaken.

Engineering controls include:

• Modifying the design of a piece of equipment

• Modifying the workplace layout in which an activity is carried out

• Installing guards to prevent exposure to the hazardous parts of a piece of equipment or work activity

• Providing enclosures, fume cupboards, local exhaust ventilation or automation

• Installing containment mechanisms to isolate energy or other hazards in emergency situations

Instead of working with falling objects, which requires a hard hat or bump cap, a substitute for the potential risk could examine other alternative safe place methods. This may include adopting a structure that catches falling objects to remove the necessity for people to wear hard hats or bump caps. This would also be adopted financially in a cost/benefit scenario, taking into consideration the cost of the PPE for everyone to wear versus the engineered solution of a safety net.

Administrative

Administrative controls include procedures, signage and warnings.

Systems of work or safe work instructions can often help to reduce risks associated with equipment and processes. All staff and students must be trained in the safe systems of work or safe work instructions before beginning any task. Periodic inspections and audits should be conducted to ensure that the systems or procedures are being followed.

This element examines an administrative control such as a safe work procedure for protective headwear e.g. bump caps. The bump cap is designed for applications in workplaces to protect the scalp by reducing exposure to abrasions and lacerations caused by minor bumps to the head. The administrative control examines instructions on the use of a bump cap for fitment.

PPE

PPE - the final defence in worker protection.

Above the neck protection includes ear plugs, safety glasses, face masks, shields and respirators. When you think of protecting your body from the neck up, there is a plethora of protective devices that permit some type of user safety. An example of this may include the use of a bump cap.

When head protection is desired but not required, bump caps reduce exposure to lacerations and abrasions caused by minor bumps to the head.

PPE can often be used in combination with other risk controls to further reduce exposure to hazardous parts of equipment and work activities. If PPE is used as the only control measure it should generally be regarded as a short term solution or last resort. Workers must be provided with PPE of the correct fit and be trained in its use and maintenance. In addition, it should be ensured that the PPE is appropriate for the task and is readily available.

Conclusions

Primary controls are those that provide the first layer of protection, their main aim being to control or restrict the impact of the hazard on those associated with the work activity. Primary controls are described in the top section of the hierarchy and include substitution, isolation and engineering controls.

Secondary controls are less reliable and provide the last layer of protection to those exposed to the hazard; these include administrative controls and PPE.

The risks associated with hazards must be identified and where possible eliminated, or minimised so far as is practicable. Reduction of risk is best done using the hierarchy of controls. With the exception of elimination, in most cases a combination or layering of primary and secondary controls provides the safest option for reducing the risk of exposure to a hazard.

Published: 18th Dec 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Mark Da Silva
Mark Da Silva is Director of Work, Health and Safety Programmes at WorkSafe Victoria. As the Director of Programmes his remit includes leading and facilitating the delivery of the strategic health and safety improvement programmes; aimed at reducing injury, illness and fatalities in Victoria workplaces.