Survey indicates behavior causes 90% of tank cleaning facility accidents

June 1, 2002
IF A TANK cleaner climbs atop a tank trailer without wearing a harness, and then falls to the ground, the result can be a few scratches and lacerations,

IF A TANK cleaner climbs atop a tank trailer without wearing a harness, and then falls to the ground, the result can be a few scratches and lacerations, or a broken leg, a broken back, or even worse, death. The consequence of the fall depends a lot on luck. But whatever the outcome, the accident was initiated by the employee's decision to leave off the harness.

About 90% of tank cleaning workplace injuries are the result of employee behavior, while the remaining 10% can be attributed to unsafe working conditions, according to a survey conducted by National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC). Bill Blackborow, Philip Services Corp, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, discussed the survey conclusions at the NTTC Tank Cleaning Council Seminar April 15-16 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The NTTC survey, based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data, covered 70 facilities and 1.75 million man hours. In that number were one fatality, 37 lost-time accidents, and 61 other OSHA recordable accidents. Leading the types of injuries were thermal burns and chemical contact, accounting for 46.5% of all accidents. Cuts and slips amounted to another 28.3%. Fewer incidents involved lifting, falls from three feet or more, and inhalation.

For every on-the-job fatality or serious injury in a company, at least 10 minor injuries had been reported earlier. What those numbers show is that bumps, scrapes, cuts, bruises, and other minor injuries are red flags for potential catastrophes. The message for managers is to develop safety programs that focus on employee behavior in an effort to prevent injuries and accidents. About 93% of all reported incidents involved a manageable behavior, Blackborow said.

“The worst thing we can do is hold people accountable after the fact,” he added. “It's too late then.”

When severe accidents occur, physical pain is beyond calculation and financial cost to companies is staggering. According to Blackborow, 37 lost-time accidents could require 25,000 tank washes at $150 each at a 30% margin to cover the cost of employee injury, lost time at work, and other expenses.

He noted that the chemical industry operates with the value that all injuries are preventable, and that management must sign on to that value in order to develop a successful safety program. “Nothing we do is worth getting hurt,” he said. “Every accident and occupational illness could have, and should have been prevented. Health and safety can be managed. They are a shared responsibility.”

To avoid the pitfalls, Blackborow recommended a safety program that incorporates a team plan to encourage employees to uncover potential risks in the workplace. “Don't plan on failure, plan on safety,” he said.

Employees on the team would be trained to conduct risk sampling, list behavior and other incident contributors they observe, and present the data for team evaluation that leads to prevention measures. At a tank cleaning facility, the big-four risks involve respiratory protection, confined-space entry, logout/tagout, and fall protection, he said.

Information that is gathered by the team should be shared with other employees on a daily basis. Weekly results should be displayed in a graph and posted. The idea is not to point the finger at individuals or enforce discipline, but to focus on the incidents.

“This is not an ‘I Spy’ system,” Blackborow emphasized. “The employees must own the system.”

As employees begin to observe the behavior around them, they become more aware of their own behavior, the risks involved, and how they can reduce those risks.

“The goal of safety sampling is to have the critical behaviors become so automatic that the individual would not ever think of performing the task any other way,” he said.