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The Balance of Safety

By Randy Logsdon

Just what does “unsafe” mean? The question is a bit rhetorical, so don’t rush to your dictionary. The question is really about what “unsafe” means in context; it’s more than the opposite of “safe.”

On Sunday, Sept. 18, the Chicago Tribune offered a front-page story questioning the safety of the automobiles used in regional driver-education programs. The basis of the story was that the vehicles used by many of the driver-education programs were models that rated poorly in crash tests. Many were older models that were not equipped with side impact airbags and/or traction control technology. While acknowledging that (with few exceptions) the vehicles are well maintained and that pre-operational safety checks are always performed, the article quoted program administrators expressing opinions that the vehicles are unsafe and that students and teachers can be subjected to unsafe conditions.

So, just what does “unsafe” mean? Does something less than “ideal” mean “unsafe”?

The Tribune story focused on the equipment and promoted the concept that because the equipment was not provided with the most advanced “safety” features it was unsafe. So, in terms of equipment, isn’t “unsafe” really a relative term—relative to some standards of acceptance? Your standards of acceptance may differ from that of the next operation, but I suggest that while it should be considerably more stringent than the standards that MSHA offers in Part 56/657 it may be less than “ideal.”

The type of safety features and the condition of the equipment should be the primary criteria used for that assessment. So, what if the assessment of an inventory of mobile, stationary and portable equipment results in the determination that a portion of that equipment fails to meet those minimum standards? The equipment that is “unsafe” should be tagged out, removed, repaired or upgraded to meet those standards. The remainder of the equipment that meets or exceeds those standards would be recognized as “safe.” Be careful. That does not prevent the safe equipment from being used unsafely.

All safe equipment is not equal. Certain safe equipment may be preferred because of enhanced safeguards particularly under certain conditions. A four-wheel drive pick-up equipped with off-road suspension and tires would be preferred on some roads to a two-wheel drive pick-up designed for street traffic. Rear-view video equipment may be a necessity on loaders operating in a congested shipping yard but may not be essential under more controlled conditions in the pit. Many of the Chicago area school districts used older and lighter driver education cars for off-road (range) training, selecting the newer and larger models for operation in real traffic.

Preferences may be even more profound when applied to personal protective equipment. Manufacturers are constantly developing new technology for everything from gloves to fall-arrest equipment. The question is not just what is the best technology, but what is the appropriate technology for the potential risk. Just consider gloves. You can choose from cloth, leather, cut-resistant, chemical-resistant, electrical, welding and others. The wrong gloves may not only be ineffective, but may increase the risk of injury.

Hearing protection offers a great example. Each model of hearing protection is rated for noise reduction (NRR). Because there is a model that offers a NRR of 33, does that mean your supply of NRR 29 earplugs is unsafe? The correct answer is “no,” unless the exposure time and noise levels require that level of protection. Under most workplace noise conditions, a NRR of 29 offers excellent protection.

Operators of equipment, whether it’s the largest loader or a portable hand tool, must understand the function and limitations of the safeguards. How does that GFCI protect me from electric shock? How does the chain-brake feature work? At what point should the parking brakes be adjusted? When do I retire my safety harness?

The safety rating of the equipment may be the first factor considered but it is only one of several factors that determine if the task (or job) can be performed safely. The knowledge and skill of the operator and the proper operation of the equipment in the environment for which it was designed are equally if not more important. If any one factor is neglected, the balance of safety for the job shifts in the direction of “unsafe.”