Safety in the Shop: Protecting Against Slips and Falls
While the most common injuries in the oil and lube shop environment are small nicks and cuts with a few minor burns or bumped heads thrown in, the most serious injuries often come from slips and falls. In fact, oil and lube facilities are far more prone to these types of accidents than most workplaces. Oil and other slippery substances are plentiful and just waiting to cause a tech to lose their footing. Open pits are ready to swallow any worker who takes a careless step. When you think about it, it’s almost surprising these accidents don’t happen more often than they do.
When they do happen, however, there’s only hard concrete, metal tools or car parts to break a person’s fall, which can cause serious harm. Even if the injury isn’t permanently debilitating or life threatening, employees may be unable to work and/or incur expensive medical bills in the process. They may even decide to take legal action to recoup their losses. Accidents can also be cause for increased insurance premiums or the dreaded intervention of OSHA and their steep fines. For oil and lube shops, their owners and employees, workplace accidents can be devastating. Doing everything possible to prevent slips and falls should be an extremely high priority for every oil and lube business.
A Word About OSHA
While OSHA General Industry Code 1910 details the practices, protocols and safety measures required by law, the Section 5 General Duty clause states each employer “shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” This clause is a sort of catchall for any common-sense safety measure that isn’t covered in Industry Code 1910. What that means for oil and lube shops is that maintaining the bare minimum required by law will likely not be enough to avoid a negligence ruling should an accident result in litigation.
It’s also important not to forget about any local and state laws that may apply to automotive establishments. Depending on the location, these may be even stricter than OSHA regulations.
An Ounce of Prevention
The lowest hanging fruit in preventing workplace slips and falls is keeping the shop clean and orderly. Any slippery spills should be cleaned up immediately, and areas where drips or leaks cause poor traction should be attended to. Having absorbent material on-hand for larger spills is always a good idea, too. Similarly, keeping tools, boxes and other items in their proper places can go a long way toward preventing trips. Warning signs and markings should also be used where appropriate throughout the shop.
It’s the Pits
Aside from maintaining general cleanliness and order, one of the primary responsibilities of ownership and management is to make sure all of the proper safety equipment is in place and in good repair. Some of the most important safety components in any oil and lube shop are the nets, covers and other equipment in place to prevent falls into the service pits. Loose board covers, bent or missing metal covers and torn or frayed netting are immediate safety hazards and should be addressed as quickly as possible. However, even if a shop’s fall prevention system is in good shape, it still may not be enough to stand up under the scrutiny of OSHA’s General Duty clause. In general, only service pits that are completely cordoned off or covered are considered 100-percent safe.
There are a variety of products on the market that can keep a literal lid on the danger of open pits. Fiberglass or metal grates keep workers from falling and can guard against stray cars. They can also increase floor space by allowing the pits to be walked, or even driven, on when not in use. Unfortunately, these grates tend to be expensive and can be a pain to install or remove, which makes them vulnerable to inconsistent use, negating their effectiveness. Some tracked systems require regular service to maintain proper function, which can cost money and time.
Netting systems can work well, are easy to use and less expensive than hard pit covers. However, they obviously cannot be walked or driven on. As with most products, not all netting systems are created equal. Do your homework and make sure any net you purchase can absorb the impact of a grown man falling on it without too much deflection. The hardware should be rated for at least twice the anticipated working load of the net. Beware of fine mesh nets, web nets and nets lacking a sewn border. These products tend to wear out quickly and may not provide the necessary level of fall protection.
It’s also important to be sure any potential fall prevention system won’t degrade from the presence of oil and other chemicals common in oil and lube shops.
Lastly, the system should be easy enough to use that employees will use it — every time.
“Think about your purpose. Do you need a net to catch people from an accidental fall, or do you need something you can walk on or drive onto?” said Joe Menhart, Sales manager for BayNets. “A pit cover, like any safety device, is considered effective only when they work as intended and are habitually used by the employees.”
Of course, it almost goes without saying that any system should meet or exceed all applicable OSHA and industry standards before being considered.
Like virtually every other aspect of oil and lube shop safety, proper and frequent training is essential for preventing slips and falls. While accidents do, and always will, happen, a regular training regimen for all employees drives home the safety-first mantra and keeps the prevention of accidents at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“A safety training program contains organized common sense, outlined in such a way that it makes safety sense,” Menhart said.
As it pertains to preventing slips and falls, the training should include the importance and process of cleaning up spills, maintaining shop organization (no tools or other items left lying around), and the proper use and maintenance of whatever pit system cover is in place. Management should stress that pits should always be covered when not in use and that not doing so will not be tolerated.
The good news is even when slips and falls do occur, they’re rarely serious. As long as ownership and management maintain a well-organized work environment, incorporate OSHA-compliant safety equipment and continually reinforce the importance and method of shop safety through regular employee training, there’s little to fear from slips and falls. Just be sure to watch your step!