In municipal government, labor-intensive jobs in public works, law enforcement and emergency services, are the source of most work-related injuries. But, are you aware that employees who work in office settings are also at risk of suffering disabling injuries? The injuries may look different, but they still cause pain, cause expensive workers’ compensation claims, and reduce overall productivity. Office workers deserve a spotlight on how to stay safe and healthy at work.
Employees may feel safe in the comfort of their office, but that’s where the dangers are. Poor ergonomics and organization can lead to three common office injuries – repetitive use injuries, computer eye strains, and falls. Here’s what you need to know about these injuries and how you can avoid them to make the office a safe workspace.
Repetitive Stress Injuries
A Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) or overuse injury is caused by repeating the same motion for extended periods and RSIs affect millions of workers every year. In an office setting, extended periods of sitting and computer work without proper ergonomics can cause strain on the back and upper extremities, wrists, elbows, and hands.
Employees who perform repetitive activities are at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, a common RSI. Carpal tunnel syndrome causes swelling in the wrist that puts pressure on the nerves and causes pain, tingling, and numbness. Also, prolonged sitting can lead to different posture problems, like strained neck and shoulders or lower back pain. While these may seem like small injuries, they can cause a lot of pain and make work difficult. As they get more severe over time, these RSIs can potentially require long-term physical therapy and rehabilitation.
The best way to avoid these injuries is by preventing them with ergonomic workstations. Ergonomics is the study of how people interact with their physical environment. You can maximize productivity and minimize injuries by building the physical environment around a person, or fitting a workspace to an employee, rather than forcing an assorted-sized workforce to all fit within the same dimensions.
For example, consider a 5-foot-tall employee using the same chair settings as a 6-foot-tall employee. The shorter worker could have tension in their back and thighs if their feet can’t rest comfortably on the ground, and the taller worker could strain their neck having to look down at the computer monitor. Different workers have different needs.
To get started on improving ergonomics, follow these guidelines:
· Provide adjustable work stations that allow employees to alternate between seated and standing positions
· When working at a computer, keep wrists in a neutral position, elbows by your side, shoulders back, and sit up straight
· Keep regularly used items, like the telephone and calculator, within easy reach
· Adjust your chair so your feet rest firmly on the floor with your knees bent at 90-degree angles
· Position your computer monitor directly in front of your head, just at or slightly below eye level
Along with these ergonomic guidelines, encourage employees to take frequent breaks to stand, walk around, and stretch their hands and wrists.
Computer Eye Strain
With the average U.S. worker spending seven hours a day on the computer, not to mention personal time staring at phone screens, eye strain has become a common injury for office workers. A survey from the American Optometric Association reported that 58% of adults have experienced eye strain or vision problems as a direct result of too much screen time.
Symptoms of computer eye strain include headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, eye twitching, or even physical fatigue and increased number of work errors. Most office employees rely on computers to complete their work, so you can’t get rid of computers to fix this problem. However, there are several adjustments workers can make to reduce eye strain and improve productivity.
These adjustments include:
· Cover windows or close the blinds to reduce excessively bright light coming from outside
· Use fewer light bulbs or lower intensity bulbs to reduce excessive indoor brightness
· Position computers to the side of a window rather than in front of or behind it
· Adjust the brightness of the computer display to match the brightness of the surrounding workstation
· Alter text size and contrast for comfort
Employees should also take breaks away from the computer to avoid eye fatigue. One common method encouraged by eye doctors is the “20-20-20 rule.” Every 20 minutes, workers should turn their gaze to an object that’s 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This rule relaxes the muscles inside the eye. A recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that these breaks not only significantly reduced eye strain, they also increased work productivity.
Slips, Trips, and Falls
According to the National Safety Council, slips and trips account for the greatest number of work-related injuries in offices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds that office workers are two to 2.5 times more likely to suffer a disabling injury from a fall than non-office workers.
While falls are usually just accidents, they are preventable. Clear work areas, proper lighting, and promptly cleaned up messes can help prevent most workplace falls. The CDC states that the most common causes of office falls are:
· Tripping over open drawers, electrical cords, loose carpeting, or objects in walkways
· Reaching for something while seated in an unstable chair
· Standing on a chair instead of a ladder
· Slipping on wet floors
· Not being able to see due to inadequate lighting
Employers can reduce the $70 billion spent annually on workers’ compensation and medical costs for falls by encouraging employees to follow some simple tips:
· Don’t place objects in common walking paths
· Close file and desk drawers when you finish using them
· Get up to reach something rather than trying to reach from your chair
· Secure electrical cords and loose carpeting
· Clean up spills on the floor (even if you didn’t make the mess), or place caution signs over spills until they’re cleaned up
· Use stepladders instead of chairs to reach items overhead
Although work-related injuries in an office setting can be severe, they’re also mostly preventable. So, start making your office a safer place by following these simple tips and educating your workforce.
Trench collapse accidents are rarely survivable. OSHA statistics reveal fatalities caused by trench wall collapse are increasing. This trend is preventable by complying with OSHA standards that every municipal utility service employee should know. Municipal employees who dig or excavate trenches are at risk of death if they enter an unprotected trench and the walls collapse.
Hazards associated with trench work and excavation are well defined in the OSHA standard for excavation and trenching found in 29 CFR 1926.651 and 1926.652 Subpart P. It describes the precautions needed for safe excavation work. There is no reliable warning when a trench fails. The walls can collapse suddenly, and workers will not have time to move out of the way. Even though small amounts of dirt may not seem dangerous, a single cubic yard of dirt can weigh more than 3,000 pounds, which can fatally crush or suffocate workers. Even small, solid pieces of dirt can cause serious injuries.
Most incidents involve excavation work on water, sewer, pipeline, communications and power-line maintenance, repair, and/or construction. OSHA data shows that most fatalities in trenches occur at depths of 10 feet or less. Lack of a protective system was the leading cause of trench-related fatalities.
OSHA requires all trenches 5 feet deep or more use one of the following protective systems:
- Sloping the trench walls
- Benching the trench walls
- Shoring the trench with pneumatic or hydraulic jacks and trench plates
- Shielding the trench using a trench box
Workers should never enter a trench that does not have a protective system in place designed and installed by a competent person. Factors such as type of soil, water content of soil, environmental conditions, proximity to previously backfilled excavations, weight of heavy equipment or tools, and vibrations from machines and motor vehicles can greatly affect soil. Not all protective systems can be used in all types of soil. A competent person is one who understands OSHA regulations, can recognize hazards, and is authorized to correct them.
Call 811 before digging so that utility lines can be marked. Train and designate a competent person to ensure safety measures are in place. What is a competent person? A competent person is an individual who can identify existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to workers, and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.
Competent Person Responsibilities
- Classifying soil
- Inspecting protective systems
- Designing structural ramps
- Monitoring water removal equipment
- Conducting site inspections
- Planning the job layout to identify safe locations for spoil piles and heavy equipment routes
- Determining what type of protective system will be used for the job and scheduling the steps needed to have the system complete and in place before workers enter
- Ensuring that employees are trained to spot signs of imminent trench collapse, including tension cracks, bulging, and toppling
- Developing a trench emergency action plan to describe steps to be taken and to provide contact information in case of an emergency
- Ensuring that ladders and other means of exit from the trench are repositioned so that ladders are never more than 25 feet away from any worker in the trench
- Must remove workers from the excavation upon any evidence of a situation that could cause a cave-in, such as accumulation of water in the trench or protective system problems
- Take actions for other types of hazards such as falling loads or hazardous atmospheres
- Monitor other types of trench–related hazards that can occur such as falls from the edge, rigging hazards, or toxic and combustible gases
- Implement and enforce procedures to ensure that work in an unprotected trench is not allowed
- Do not enter an unprotected trench, even for a short task
- Inspect the protected trench before entering
- Exit the trench and call the competent person if you see any evidence of problems with a protective system
- Do not assume there will be a warning sign before a cave in or that you will have time to move out of the way
- Manually uncover utilities to determine the exact location and depth before mechanical digging with a backhoe or trackhoe
Do you ever work in a confined space? There are many types of confined spaces – tanks, silos, pits, tunnels, pipes, boilers, sewer manholes, trenches, etc. No matter what the type, confined spaces have something in common. They have limited ways to get in and out, and the atmosphere within them could be dangerous.
A confined space has three characteristics: 1) It has limited openings for entry and exit, 2) it is large enough to permit a worker to enter, and 3) it is not designed for continuous worker occupancy. The characteristics of a confined space cause it to present unique hazards. Early miners knew some of the dangers of a confined space. Have you ever heard about the canary that died? Miners took a bird into the mine. When the bird died, the miners knew the atmosphere in the mine was getting dangerous. The death of the canary told miners it was time to leave. Today we have more sophisticated ways of testing the atmosphere in confined spaces, but the principle is the same. Check the atmosphere to make sure it is safe to work in before you enter a confined space.
Confined spaces present many dangers – some of which the miners of yesteryear never knew. Here are some common confined space hazards:
• Lack of oxygen, presenting a suffocation hazard
• Fire or explosion hazards from an accumulation of flammable vapors
• Health hazards from toxic vapors
• Difficulty exiting the space in the event of an emergency
• Cramped spaces to work in, resulting in a danger of being caught in/on equipment
• Poor visibility
• High levels of noise
• Temperature extremes
Regulatory agencies require workplaces to have a plan for working in confined spaces safely. If you work in a confined space, you should know your municipality’s procedures for safely entering the space and working in it. Confined spaces should be identified and classified, and safe entry procedures developed. Some confined spaces are called “permit-required confined spaces,” meaning a permit is required for entry into the confined space. In addition to the normal characteristics of a confined space, permit-required spaces present one or more of these hazards:
• Has the potential to contain a hazardous atmosphere
• Could contain material capable of engulfing someone entering the space
• Has an internal configuration such that a person could be trapped or asphyxiated by inwardly converging walls or by a floor which slopes downward and tapers off to a smaller cross-section (i.e. grain elevator)
• Contains any other recognized serious hazard
In general, these are the things you should be aware of before you enter a confined space:
• Know how to enter it safely
• Know how to exit quickly
• Know that the atmosphere in the space is tested and found to be free of dangerous levels of toxic or flammable vapors, and that there is sufficient oxygen
• Know that the atmosphere within the space is going to remain safe while you are working
• Know the rescue plan in the event of an emergency, and make sure the proper rescue equipment is available and in good condition
• Know that another person outside the confined space is keeping an eye on you as you work, and that they know the rescue plan also
• Know what other procedures are necessary to follow to work safely, such as locking out energy sources
Another very important thing to remember is what to do if someone working in a confined space becomes ill or injured. In the event of such an emergency, you should never enter a confined space to rescue someone without the proper equipment, training, and atmospheric testing. Chances are, whatever caused the illness or injury will get you too! Many confined space accidents claim the lives of multiple victims because the initial ill or injured person is a friend and co-worker. People often react to the situation with poor judgment - they just see their friend is in need and jump in to help them without thinking about the danger to themselves. The next thing you know they succumb to the hazard.
It is possible to work safely in confined spaces, but it is a task that requires careful planning and preparation. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts when it comes to confined spaces. Follow all safety precautions and don’t hesitate to speak up if you are unsure of the correct procedures. You play the most important role of all when it comes to working safely. By consistently following safe work procedures and not taking chances, you will be working safely for a long time to come.
It’s dangerous to be a “Trash Man”. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, there were 7 fatalities to sanitation workers in the first 10 days of 2018. In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that refuse and recyclable materials collectors have the 5th highest fatal work injury rate among civilian occupations. Then there are the non-fatal injuries; sprains, strains, and over-exertion injuries in solid waste collection are 10 times more likely, due to jumping on/off trucks, handling heavy loads, and being backed over by drivers. Exposure to potentially dangerous materials is another major concern in the solid waste industry.
Although OSHA regulations don’t expressly govern sanitation employees or vehicles, it does inspect industrial employers if fatalities occur. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has published Safety Standards for Mobile Refuse Collection and Compaction Equipment, a group of procedures that offers worker guidance:
· Ride only in the vehicle cab or on steps specifically designed for riding
· Remain inside the vehicle cab until the vehicle is completely stopped
· Ensure workers are not using riding steps when the vehicle is backing, exceeding 10mph, or traveling more than 2/10th ‘s of a mile
· Ensure no one rides on the loading sills or in hoppers
· Wear personal protective equipment, high visibility vests, and/or outerwear
· Never use cellphones while driving trucks or at a disposal facility
· Always wear a seatbelt
Equipment makes a difference. Garbage trucks with automated side-loader systems enhance sanitation worker safety by limiting exposure to hazards outside the truck, as well as those associated with heavy lifting. The same worker can drive the truck and operate the mechanical side arm, which collects refuse containers, dumps contents into the truck and returns the container to the ground. The automated side-loader, from an equipment standpoint, has made a huge difference to worker hazard exposure. No more manual lifting, no being exposed to hazardous waste, and no more being hit by vehicles in the roadway.
Some workers, however, still manually load garbage into trucks despite the emergence of more widespread automated collection. Municipalities may want to establish weight limits for garbage, but these must be rigorously enforced. Workers don’t know by looking at a bag how heavy it is until they lift it. The contents of the bag may not immediately be apparent, putting workers at risk of chemical or bio-hazards.
Many garbage trucks these days are equipped with rearview cameras and other technology to augment the mirrors on both sides of the truck. It should be stressed to drivers to look back and forth between mirrors and cameras when driving and backing the vehicle, to establish good awareness of the environment and to be sure they know where ground workers, other people, vehicles, buildings, and other hazards are at all times. Although maintaining focus remains the goal of drivers, industry experts find that complacency can still develop. There is truth to the concern that workers will become complacent and distracted after having done the same thing day after day, week after week, month after month, without anything bad happening. That is why we need to train and retrain on safety and communicate why it is important and everybody’s job. In addition, drivers should participate in extended training on a Focus 6 Program, designed to help them maintain the skills to eliminate the six most frequent types of sanitation industry incidents: backing, rollover, rear collision, intersection, pedestrian/bicycle, and push-pull-and lift.
Although hazards are also present during post-collection operations at landfills, transfer stations, and recycling centers, these are more fixed facilities and the hazards are more defined and can be adjusted. Observing people is easier because of the controlled environments at these facilities.
Communication between workers and supervisors is a key element to sanitation safety. Supervisors should remain aware of new techniques and industry standards by subscribing to waste management periodicals. It takes collaboration, leadership, and teamwork to make the industry safer.
The dangers of confined space work have been written about since Roman times, when the Emperor Trajan was noted to have sentenced criminals to clean sewers, an occupation considered one of the worst. Working conditions have improved vastly since Trajan’s time, but the same hazards persist and result in workplace injuries and fatalities each year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics nearly 100 work fatalities occur in permit-required confined spaces. In addition, for every victim who dies in a confined space, 3 would-be rescuers lose their lives trying to rescue a victim.
Even though you’ve met all the requirements for a safe confined space entry: you have an attendant, an entrant, and a supervisor, you have the space clearly marked and protected as a confined space, you are monitoring atmospheric conditions, you’ve made sure the entrant has a harness, tripod, tag-line and winch in place, and you have a correctly completed confined space entry permit, you aren’t done. The only requirement remaining is completion of the rescue plan. Most municipalities usually complete the rescue plan by writing “CALL 9-1-1.” That is not sufficient.
Relying solely on 9-1-1 as your means of emergency rescue is essentially planning for a body recovery, not a rescue. To prevent injuries and fatalities, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) requires a specific plan of operation for confined space rescue. These operations must be established by the employer (municipality)¹. If 9-1-1 is part of your emergency plan, the employer is to, among other things, do the following:
· Evaluate the emergency responder’s ability to respond in a timely fashion
- OSHA expects emergency care to be administered to the victim in 3-4 mins²
· Ensure the responder has the equipment and training to enter the specific confined space you are working in
- Even though you are in a small community and the fire station is just around the corner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your local firefighters have the training and equipment to respond to a confined space rescue
· Ensure the responder is proficient in performing the needed rescue services
- OSHA standards require that the owner of the confined space ensure that the emergency responders are proficient at conducting rescues from the specific types of spaces
- OSHA lists 24 types of confined spaces depending on the size of the opening, shape of the opening, and location with respect to the space
- The OSHA term “Proficient” means the employer has certified the responder as being proficient in conducting rescues from the specific type of confined space encountered
Municipalities, like private employers, have two options when considering permit-required confined space rescue, since for most, “9-1-1” is not a viable option for emergency confined space response and rescue operations.
- Train your employees to conduct permit-required confined space rescue operations and provide medical assistance, or
- Hire a third-party Rescue and Response company to provide those services for your municipality.
¹OSHA Confined Space Regulations for General Industry: 1910.146(k)(1) – 1910.146(l)(2)
²OSHA Confined Space Regulations for Construction 29 CFR 1926.1211(a) – 1926.1211(d)
Scenario: You are the “on-call” person for after-hours responses to sewage calls. It’s Sunday afternoon during a four-day holiday weekend when many people have overnight guests and of course they’ve enjoyed a large traditional meal. You are dispatched to a call across town where a slow draining and gurgling toilet complaint has been called in to your municipality. You respond immediately and drive directly to the address. When you arrive, the resident tells you that for the past few days the toilet has been making gurgling sounds when it was flushed, except for the last time, when there was no gurgle and the water didn’t go down.
One out of every four vehicle accidents can be blamed on poor backing skills, according to the National Safety Council. Approximately 500 people die and 15,000 are injured due to backing accidents each year. Using safe vehicle backing tips can help prevent you or your employees from experiencing the trauma and expense of a backing accident.
· Think ahead. Drivers should not put themselves in an unnecessary backing situation.
· Park defensively. Drivers choose an easy-exit parking space, like pull-through or where no one else is parked. Don’t crowd neighboring vehicles; be sure to park your vehicle in the middle of your space.
· Know your vehicle’s blind spots. Drivers need to remember that mirrors never give the whole picture while backing. In a medium-sized truck, blind spots can extend up to 16 feet in front and 160 feet behind the vehicle.
· Do a walk-around. Before entering your vehicle do a walk-around. This gives you a firsthand view of the backing area and any limitations. You can check for children, signs, poles, drop-offs, buildings, and other things you might hit if not attentive in your backing.
· Know your clearances. While performing your walk-around also check for obstructions, low hanging eaves and tree limbs, wires, and any other potential clearance-related obstacles.
· Alley parking is a special circumstance. If an alley doesn’t permit driving all the way through or room to turn around, you should back into it (if ordinances permit) so when leaving you can pull forward into the street rather than backing blindly out into the street.
· Use a spotter. Have another person help when backing. The driver and spotter should use hand signals instead of verbal instructions. This may take some practice so that you understand each other’s signals. Do not allow the spotter to be positioned directly behind your vehicle or walk backwards behind you while giving instructions. They should be off to the driver’s side where you can see them in your side mirror.
· Every backing situation is new and different. Sometimes a driver visits the same location several times a day. The driver should be watchful each visit for changes and new obstacles (new vehicles, trash cans, people, etc.)
· Drivers sometimes must spot for themselves. They need to return to the vehicle and start backing within a few seconds after finishing their walk-around. This will allow very little time for people, cars, or other obstacles to change the backup conditions. Backing without a spotter should only take place after the driver has learned as much as possible about the area they are backing into.
Long-Term Solutions to Safe Backing:
· Install rear-vision camera systems in vehicles to eliminate rear blind spots. Investing in a rear-vision camera system for vehicles can put drivers in full visual control of the rear of a vehicle.
· No amount of forward-driving experience can help a driver with backing a truck or other vehicles. All drivers need practice, practice, practice in safe surroundings until they become familiar with the way the vehicle backs up compared to the direction the steering wheel is turned. Supervisors need to test and approve drivers’ skills before allowing them on the streets.
· Create and support a company-wide training program. The program should include a driver’s course to teach and review backing techniques, as well as covering equipment usage, hand signals, dangers to avoid, and other risk-lowering topics. OMAG has partnered with OSU/OKC’s Precision Driving School to provide training to municipal drivers free of charge. Contact OMAG Risk Management Services to get more details on how to sign up.
With so many potential injuries, loss of property and vehicular liability claims isn’t it worth it to take some time to evaluate your vehicle backing skill?
Do your employees know how to handle hazardous materials safely? Do you have written policies and procedures for handling hazardous materials and are your employees trained on those procedures? Here are 12 basic rules all employees who handle or work around hazardous materials should know and follow:
1. Follow all established procedures and perform job duties as you have been trained.
2. Be cautious and plan ahead. Think about what could go wrong and pay close attention to what you are doing while working with or around hazardous materials.
3. Always use required PPE; inspect it carefully before each use to make sure it’s safe to use. Replace worn PPE; it won’t provide adequate protection.
4. Make sure all containers are properly labeled and that materials are contained in an appropriate container. Don’t use any chemical not contained or labeled properly. Report damaged containers or illegible labels to your supervisor immediately.
5. Read labels and the Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) before using any material to make sure you understand hazards and precautions.
6. Use all materials solely for their intended purpose. Don’t, for example, use solvents to wash your hands, or gasoline to clean equipment.
7. Never eat or drink while handling hazardous material. If your hands are contaminated, don’t use cosmetics or handle contact lenses.
8. Employees handling hazardous materials need to read labels on chemicals they use or handle and have Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) available to refer to that explain how to properly deal with handling, storing, and cleaning up spills, and that explain relevant first-aid procedures.
9. Store all hazardous materials properly, separate incompatibles, and store in ventilated, dry, cool areas.
10. Employees must keep themselves and the work area clean. After handling any hazardous material, wash thoroughly with soap and water. Clean work surfaces at least once per shift, so contamination risks are minimized.
11. Learn about emergency procedures and equipment. Understanding emergency procedures means knowing evacuation procedures, emergency reporting procedures, and how to deal with fires or spills/leaks. It also means knowing what to do in a medical emergency if a co-worker is injured or overcome by chemicals.
12. Keep emergency eyewash and shower stations clean. Test them at least monthly to make sure they are working properly and keep them accessible; don’t let clutter build up around the stations.
Your department may have other safety rules and concerns. Present this list in a safety meeting and get your employees involved in adding to the list. This will create a sense of ownership over your safe chemical handling procedures. To the employees it will be “our procedures” rather than “their procedures” which were just given to them. If employees recognize the risks and have involvement in providing input, they will be more likely to comply with your policies and procedures.
For pipeline cleaning professionals, fast and efficient water jetting is essential to maximizing profitability and the return on investment for the jetter. Yet many contractors fail to optimize jetting performance because they don’t understand the basics of two critical components: nozzles and tips.