March 2011, Vol. 23, No.3

Safety Corner

Guarding life and limb

Ben Humphries

As water and wastewater operators, it is easy for us to get caught up in the hype over new and emerging technologies. These include “green” technologies, improved process controls, variable-frequency drives, soft starters, high-efficiency motors, state-of-the-art mechanical seals, telemetry systems, improved pump designs, and improved treatment processes.

Breakthroughs in these technologies are highly desirable and long overdue in our industry. Water wells, water booster stations, water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, and wastewater pumping stations consume significant amounts of energy. Employing the best available technology minimizes energy requirements and their associated costs.

However, there are times — and this is one of them — when we need to pause and pay attention to the equipment we work near every day. Engineered rotating equipment, such as blowers, pumps, centrifuges, mixers, aerators, presses, dryers, and compressors, are plentiful, and they present specific safety concerns.

Overall, I find that operators are surprisingly on their game with regard to confined-space entry and lockout/tagout safety procedures. No matter the remoteness of the town or the size of the water and sewer system, operators are aware of the dangers posed by confined-space entry and the importance of properly shutting down electromechanical equipment when performing routine maintenance or repairs. Of course, there are exceptions to this observation.

I am by equal measure appalled at the lack of attention given to operating mechanical equipment without the proper guards and protection shields in place. Most of us are familiar with horror stories of farm workers being caught in farming machinery. Why we fail to relate those dangers to our own workplaces is a mystery.

The next time you attend an operators’ association meeting or training conference, cast a keen eye around the room and note the evidence of this carelessness. Missing fingernails, partially or completely missing fingers, and scars of all kinds are common.

Recently, a municipality called for assistance with a pumping problem. Upon arriving at the site, I observed V-belt guards leaning against the pump station fence. The guards were covered in weeds and did not appear to have been moved recently.

Once the pumping issue was corrected, I encouraged the supervisor to have his men reinstall the guards. He noted that it wouldn’t do any good, as his guys would simply take them off again the next time maintenance was required. I remember thinking that this excuse would probably not be well received in a courtroom during a lawsuit involving an injury or fatality.

Most of you are aware that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration holds no regulatory authority in the municipal workplace. The responsibility for a safe working environment must therefore be undertaken by all of us. In many cases, insurers can provide valuable assistance by helping to identify areas of concern and incentives (through lower insurance rates and lower risk of cancellation) to correct them.

I encourage each of you to set the example at your workplace. Make sure that all coupling guards, belt guards, fan covers, gear reducer screens, and other protective shields are present and properly installed.

During the meeting of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Safety, Security, and Occupational Health Committee at WEFTEC® 2010 in October, a committee member reported that the number of fatalities to date in 2010 already had surpassed the number from all of 2009 for the municipal industry.

Operators should be doing everything possible to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries. Please be a safety advocate and not a safety statistic!

Ben Humphries is a member of the Delta Process Equipment Inc. team in Ruston, La., a certified operator in Louisiana, and a member of the Water Environment Federation Safety, Security, and Occupational Health Committee.


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