Their Safety is Not a 'One and Done' - Safety
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Their Safety is Not a 'One and Done'

By Kim Phelan

Article Date: 03-01-2008
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Preventing technician injuries takes a big, ongoing effort - one that you can't afford to shirk.

An injury suffered by an equipment service technician is a brutal thing to contemplate, but the reality of these incidents is one that every dealership must continually confront and battle against. The levels of affliction caused by one man's injury - not to mention a fatality - are numerous. But one has to wonder whether the suffering from one technician accident, measured both in pain and duration, is rivaled by the haunting agony of knowing that it could likely have been prevented.

But prevention is not a one-and-done - do one training session or pass out one policy booklet and bam, you're set. Ongoing training, documenting and above all, creating and maintaining a culture of safety streaming from the top down, is the key to keeping technicians injury-free on the job.

Industry experts agree that the majority of service tech injuries, both at the dealer's service shop and at remote field jobs, are related to the eyes, the hands, and to the back, and any one of these can mean a lifetime of chronic pain or discomfort and, of course, of regret. The sad truth is that accidents often occur because a safety shortcut was taken. A few seconds of thinking through an action, of putting on safety goggles or protective gloves, or any number of simple, preventive measures can be the difference between going home intact and leaving work in an ambulance.

The most frequently occurring types of injuries are not really new to the equipment repair field - these include: slips and falls caused by objects or fluids not cleared or cleaned from floors; foreign objects hitting unprotected eyes; cuts, bangs, crushes and burns to bare fingers and hands; back strains caused by lifting incorrectly or lifting more than 40 pounds without assistance; injury and fatality caused by improper blocking and chocking of equipment; injuries to feet not protected by steel-toed boots. In addition, today the incidence of carpal tunnel is increasing due to repetitive motion of turning wrenches as well as hand damage from vibratory tools - most likely because diagnosis is more accurate today and awareness is greater among more workers.

And of course no dealership will ever be free from the injury risks associated with lock out/tag out - even when the rules are adhered to in the shop to prevent a machine from being started when a man's working on it, field technicians working outside on a job are particularly vulnerable if operators, using a universal key, go to move a machine without paying attention that a tech's near the engine.

"Everything we deal with is very big, very heavy equipment, and it's dangerous all of the time," said Howard Wimmer, branch operations manager at Dean Machinery, a Caterpillar dealership based in Kansas, City, Mo. "It has the potential to harm you, and it has the potential to kill you. If something's not blocked up properly or you're not paying attention to what you're taking apart, sometimes those pieces that you don't think about can get to you. Guys have to be aware of their surroundings at all time."

At Dean Machinery, management faces yet another safety challenge for its technicians on top of the long list of risks inherent to their job: the company serves mining customers whose repair needs often send Dean technicians underground - safety training for this segment is regulated and enforced by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Dean Machinery has 30 to 40 techs who can be called to do underground work at any given time, and the company complies with MSHA rules for 40-hour training for every new mine worker plus an eight-hour refresher annually. The company reports that a recent change in MSHA regulations requires even a technician's helper, as well as the technician doing the job, to have this certification.

And, as if the dealer didn't have enough safety risks to worry about, the leading cause of occupational fatalities across all industries in the U.S. is driving accidents, according to Darryl Allegree, CSP, ARM, risk engineering regional manager at Zurich North America Commercial.

Wimmer at Dean Machinery, and colleague Mark Slator, vice president of product support, add that dealers face double troubles with technicians driving to field jobs: (1.) poor driving or speeding is both dangerous and can give your company's image a black eye since your name is on the truck; and (2.) more potential danger is stacked, literally, against the driver if he's hauling large parts or whole pieces of equipment back to the shop for repair - improper loading is a back injury in the making, and improper tie-down is a serious potential hazard on the road.

The Dealer's Biggest Burden

While the vigilance to keep workers safe must be relentless, maintaining a consistent, OSHA- and MSHA-compliant training program - replete with thorough documentation - could be the No. 1 challenge dealers wrestle with when it comes to the issue of safety.

The OSHA "10-Hour" is a certification requirement from that agency that prescribes an annual 10 hours of training per year in a defined group of subjects that includes, among others, first aid/blood borne pathogens, hazard communication and forklift safety. Although most dealers would not relish a surprise OSHA inspection to check up on their compliance, the fact is an inspection will probably occur only when there's been an injury or when an employee (sometimes a vengeful one who's been terminated) telephones the agency with a complaint.

OSHA will also perform an inspection if a dealer invites them in on a voluntary basis, but there are pros and cons to asking for an OSHA safety inspection at your company.

"You get put on the good-guy list," said George Wacaser, product support manager for Martin Equipment of Illinois. He advocates calling OSHA for voluntary inspections after the service department has worked to get its safety issues addressed and "when you think you're doing pretty good." He says OSHA acknowledges and appreciates those companies that are doing their best to comply and keep workers safe.

The downside, says Allegree at Zurich, is that you've got to be prepared to tackle anything and everything that OSHA may identify as a problem. He adds that inviting your insurance carrier out for a review of the shop first is advisable.

"It's a good program and [OSHA] will come out and help you," he said, "but the only drawback is, whatever recommendations they make, you'll have to comply with. That means that if you've got some odd exposure, something that could be really expensive related to a dated facility, for example, they will expect you to correct it. So you just have to be very careful about that and you have to be prepared for the worst consequence."

Allegree notes a trend in the construction equipment industry in which the volume of accident claims from dealers has gone down in recent years, but the severity of claims and their related costs is climbing.

So even though dealers won't get a surprise walk-in inspection from OSHA, consistent safety training and a perpetual safety consciousness among management and employees is necessary to keep injuries to a minimum.

"When you're talking about OSHA and addressing safety, you have to focus on the employees and not letting them get hurt versus just following rules; no ownership wants someone hurt," added Matt Schloegel, director of truck and equipment marketing, Zurich Direct Underwriters. "Every dealer has that issue: How do you take care of the employee and prevent accidents in the future? OSHA should be a secondary thing to you wanting to protect your employees and keep them safe and healthy."

Keeping Track, and On Track

Driven by the desire to protect technicians (and avoid OSHA/MSHA citations and fines), many dealerships delegate to one manager the responsibility of executing (ie. organizing, running, monitoring, and documenting) a safety training program. In some cases, a safety director is hired, and in others, it falls as one more add-on job to someone who already has other full-time duties. In either circumstance, the advent of electronic, Web-based training simplifies and streamlines the process, whether the company operates eight or 80 facilities. Some electronic training products can be implemented in a self-study or group training format, and all documentation is automated, including what content was covered, who participated, who passed the test, etc. Management can also more easily track percentage of participation and who needs a tap on the shoulder.

At Road Machinery, a Komatsu dealership based in Phoenix, Ariz., safety director Jamie Stotts says there's somewhat of a balancing act between meeting customer demand for completing jobs and the challenge to both continually train techs and comply with the myriad regulatory agencies, as well as the state DOT - in Arizona's case that now means meeting GVW (gross vehicle weight) regulations that classify trucks over 18,001 pounds as commercial versus the 26,001 pounds in many other states. It puts drivers of service trucks under a whole set of compliance rules related to number of consecutive hours they can work in a week. As a result, Road Machinery has had to craft some creative means for juggling techs between jobs across five states, sometimes busing them to jobsites instead of having them drive individual service trucks.

But training and regular self-inspections are never compromised, Stotts says. As an authorized OSHA and MSHA instructor for the construction industry, as well as a certified CPR and first aid instructor, he conducts routine training sessions for the company, which employs about 100 total technicians. He also conducts a variety of safety training courses for customers upon request.

An important note about documentation, whether automated or done manually with paper records, is that it is an absolute must for any training that occurs at the dealership, because, as many sources echoed, "If you don't document, it didn't happen."

Documenting all training events, and who attended them, gives dealers the obvious benefit of defense in the event of an injury-related law suit, but also provides the company with very tangible savings on insurance premiums, according to Steve Clugston, founder of a Web-based training company called Global Training

"Insurance companies go crazy for this kind of thing," he said. "Discounts can range from 5 to 15 percent depending on the current insurance market; [well documented training] might prevent an increase or it could mean a dramatic decrease."

Schloegel and Allegree from Zurich agree.

"Establishing a safety program can result in direct savings of your insurance premiums," said Schloegel. But, he added, that's really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the saved expenses connected with keeping workers safe.

The National Compensation Council of Insurance (NCCI) assigns all companies a rating based on their number of accidents and claims, Schloegel explained. And it's that rating that ultimately determines what a dealer will end up paying for workers' compensation insurance. A rating of .75 for example is well below the national average of 1.0, and would therefore result in a lower cost than for a company rated with 1.25. The real rub is that the "e-modifier" sticks with a dealer for four years - the immediate past year is skipped and only the three years prior to that are considered.

"It's amazing but we see direct competitors out there where one is paying 50 percent more for the exact same coverage," said Allegree. "It's going to be a challenge for you to be competitive on your workers' compensation insurance if your modifier is above the national average. It shows that they need to be consistent in their efforts," he added. "If they let up and have a bad year, then they're stuck with it."

Allegree notes that dealerships that make an effort to create a safe workplace and begin instituting training programs will certainly be successful in reducing their accident experiences by some percentage.

"There's too many dealers that leave things to chance," he said. "Put some focus on the safety effort; if you've got safety problems, you've also got production and quality problems, so it's all tied together. It's a good idea for employers to be active with their insurance carrier, investigate their accidents and monitor their claims. And don't be afraid to ask your carrier for some help on safety loss prevention or to explain claims issues."

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