By Mark Hazelbaker and Keith Williams
Air Force Safety Center
While new technology continues to make the workplace safer, most on-duty tasks already have procedures and checklists in place to prevent injury and damage to equipment. Airmen are trained to follow stringent safety guidance and the Air Force expects it to be followed.
Air Force Instruction 91-203, Air Force Consolidated Occupational Safety Instruction, has many areas that can be used to address protecting oneself from these types of tragic mishaps. Unfortunately, a lot of safety guidance comes from mishaps. These are known as “blood rules.”
As of April 1, nine mishaps involving Air Force military and civilian personnel have resulted in amputation of finger(s) in fiscal 2014. Six of the mishaps occurred on-duty. While experience levels of all the Airmen involved varied, all were qualified in their duties. Judgment and decision-making errors, primarily cautions and warnings being ignored, were the main causal factors in the majority of these preventable mishaps. Table saw mishaps accounted for four (one on duty and three off duty) of the nine. While two of them are still under investigation, the other two are complete. One revealed an individual circumvented safety features by removing a guard and used a locally produced jig to perform a task. The other mishap involved an individual who did everything right but overlooked an embedded knot in the wood being cut. The six other mishaps involved pinch point, which is any point at which it is possible for a person or part of a person’s body to be caught between moving parts of a machine, or between the moving and stationary parts of a machine, or between material and any part of the machine. Regrettably, these nine Airmen will have to live with a permanent partial disability the rest of their lives due to poor risk management.
Off duty, Airmen have shown they will take short cuts when performing maintenance work or other activities involving machinery. Past mishap analysis revealed people not properly using personal protective equipment or simply not using any at all. At times, people have used the incorrect tool to do a job or did not have the proper skill set to safely perform the task at hand.
To reverse this negative trend and hopefully prevent the need for additional guidance, use of good judgment when working around moving parts or equipment is essential. One key step is use of an evaluation, or job safety analysis, of the machines and operations within work centers and at home to identify hazards. After identifying the hazards, the next step is to eliminate or guard the hazards to prevent accidental contact. Lastly, ensure everyone is trained as to why there are guards and hazards that may still exist.
The best way to prevent any injury is to engineer the hazard out of a process. There are table saws available that have engineered out the hazard of losing fingers during table saw operations. The designed saw carries a small electrical signal. When skin contacts the blade, the signal changes because the human body is conductive. The change to the signal activates an aluminum brake that springs into the spinning blade, stopping it. The blade’s angular momentum drives it beneath the table, removing the risk of subsequent contact. Power to the motor is shut off. It all happens in less than five milliseconds.
These saws also prevent kickbacks because of a riving knife. Kickback injuries are less severe but more common. We all too often have to rely on training and education — this is one opportunity to completely eliminate a hazard and it requires no change in behavior. While these saws may be more expensive, the risk of losing fingers outweighs the cost.
Deficiencies in leadership and discipline were highlighted in one of the recent mishaps. These are two areas that should never come into question from an Air Force organization. As for your own organization, ask yourself these questions: Does the unit commander communicate safety and health expectations to personnel in their command? Does the unit commander talk safety and RM at commander’s calls? Do they walk through their unit and perform safety spot inspections with the unit safety representative? Does the commander empower the USR to speak for them when they notice poor safety decision-making? Do personnel feel they can state “knock it off” without repercussion? Do personnel understand RM principles and know they are enforced by leadership? If the answer to these questions is yes, that’s a good indication the unit commander is promoting a proactive safety culture.
Bill Parsons, Air Force chief of ground safety, stressed all Airmen should promote proactive mishap prevention, both on and off duty, by using sound RM principles. Every Airman is exposed to RM when they take the mandatory Air Force RM Fundamentals Course located on ADLS under the miscellaneous category. Maj. Gen. Kurt Neubauer, Air Force chief of safety, also sounded off during a recent AFSEC commander’s call conveying Airmen must take the RM skills learned on-duty and apply those same skills during off-duty activities. Most people don’t even realize it but, RM techniques are applied to everyday tasks such as backing your car out of a parking space, descending a flight of stairs, etc. It’s second nature.
Unfortunately, some Airmen continue to ignore the RM principles they have been taught and make risky decisions leading to injury to themselves, others or damage to equipment. Commanders, supervisors and Wingmen must do their part to eradicate this unacceptable behavior.