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Health and Safety and the “forgotten supervisor”

Most supervisors take their jobs seriously and to the best of their ability. They need to learn information about the process they are involved with, and that is usually provided or learned as part of the job training. However, that information may only be about how it is intended to function under normal conditions but, very little may be devoted for things or situations that could or end up going wrong.

Airplane pilots, for a long time now, are able to get inside a plane simulator, practice how to fly the plane under varying conditions, and, not just that, but practice for situations when something no longer functions as intended. The simulator is the product of various experts and thus professionally and, by design, intended to deal with practically all potential variations of events.  Thus, the pilot does not have to research the information, it is provided for him for “all variable conditions”.

With the advances in computer sciences, robotics and artificial intelligence that kind of possibility is expanding more and more to other fields. Progressively, it may even get to plant supervisors. Perhaps the justificationor demand for such advances for most industrial plants is not there yet.

Consequently the supervisors in industry are left much more on their own to find out how to “bring their plane down safely”.

Some of the following examples are intended to try to illustrate some such situations but definitely not as a complete list and especially for all supervisors:

At some coke oven by-product plants the process may include distracting and ending up with 99% pure ammonia. Concentration of ammonia in a Javex bottle, usually, is about 15% (If someone has been close to and opened a Javex bottle, the two sets of numbers may partially illustrate the relationship between them but in no way relates to what it actually means when dealing at 99% concentration). If the ammonia is not burned but shipped to other chemical plants for further processing or other end use, it is stored/transported in pressurize tanks as a liquid.  It would be very unusual for the supervisor to be informed in advance that the ammonia storage tanks have a good chance of developing fractures, especially in the end cones of what usually is a cylindrical storage tank. They may need to learn that of their own initiative. The supervisor most likely was informed that when the ammonia does escape, under atmospheric conditions, it changes to a gas. Especially at initial stages and for quite a time after, it will travel as a cloud, close to the ground; it does not easily get diluted in air. Should this cloud come into contact with a human the results can be deadly. As part of his regular job, he may know or been instructed where and how to check for leaks, what precautions to take, etc., but, without his personal research he may not expect to monitor the tank itself. He may not even know how to monitor it yet he is responsible for the safety of his people at or around the ammonia.

Many people, even in private life, may deal with pressurized containers. Some are regulated, some are not. For example, if one needs to have the BBQ tank filled, it is usually done by a qualified, trained individual and thus they don’t need to learn much other than perhaps how to transport them and how to safely connect them to their BBQ.

Air compressor tanks may be a different story. The tanks may be regulated at time of manufacture but, after, they may end up in private or industrial setting. The tank, from outside, may look like new, but, air contains moisture. If the accumulated water is not periodically drained from the tank (or even if it is) the tank potentially will start to rust from inside out. Eventually the rusted area may reduce the metal thickness to a point where it is no longer able to sustain the regulated pressures and it can explode (like a bomb). In the industrial setting, the supervisor may need to learn about how to avoid such situations and take appropriate action. Would he have been instructed of this or did he somehow become aware of it on his own?

Back to coke oven gas again, he/she may know that in some cases one may need to take air quality samples before starting a job. That would potentially result in taking the air samples under ambient temperatures. Thus the results may show no additional precautions are required. If the job requires applying heat to accumulated coke oven gas deposits the air make up may change from acceptable to where added precautions are required very shortly after a torch starts to heat up the deposits. Thus more air sample analysis are required after the job starts.The deposits may release gasses such as cyanide. Cyanide, as he/shehopefully would have discovered, can enter the human body through any inadequately protected skin. Most people have heard what potentials the cyanide can have to a human. There are very few instructions about what the supervisors should do about heating up the deposits. Some, if any are provided would usually be with how to deal with each situation and as dictated by the air sampleIf the worker was not adequately informed, he/she may see a white smoke being generated, put on a respirator fitted with a chemical filter and end up actually masking the senses.

Where there is a hazard from flames, one may decide on coveralls what by trade name is called Nomex. It usually is a very highly regarded product that is very comfortable to wear and will protect the person against flames. Should the supervisor look into it a bit more he/she may discover that it takes about 4 seconds for the 1,500 deg F flame to allow heat transfer through the cloth to reach an inside temperature of 160 deg. F. That just happens to be the blistering temperature of human skin. If there is a need for Nomex coveralls, the supervisor should also then be looking at the duration the person could end up being exposed to the flames before being able to get away from the flame(s). The person will not be affected by the flames per say, but may cook like a potato in tinfoil on a BBQ. They may also need to recognize that the Nomex coveralls will only protect them where they cover the skin. Coveralls would most likely leave hands, feet and face/head uncovered and thus require other solutions. The transfer time to skin can be increased by using appropriate under clothing. Nylon and polyesters can easily melt and deposit on the skin, so not a good product for under the Nomex. The supervisor may find out about the materials, instruct and follow through in checking that the subordinate is wearing, what may in this case be the Nomex coveralls. But, how does he/she ensure the subordinate is wearing proper underclothes?

Nomex does have other characteristics as well. It can withstand many chemicals without deterioration but, for those who may have had first-hand experience, know that the liquids will penetrate through even more easily than through denim.

Some situations for working at heights necessitate the use of what is referred to as “5 point harness” with appropriate shock absorbing lanyard. Again, the supervisor may have learned, been thought, thought the people under his responsibility how to wear them, use them, etc.. But, what about the recovery plan if someone ends up being supported by the harness? They may have 20 minutes or so before the harness straps start to affect the circulation of the thus supported person. So, placing a person on the ground to watch, may result in a case where the “watchman” is only able to explain what happened as “he saw the whole thing”.

Those who actually end up having to protect themselves by wearing a respirator know that there has to be a good seal between the face and the mask. They also know that dust filters work for dust and appropriate chemical filters will work for the chemicals they are designed for (again, assuming the seal against face has been fit tested to make sure the mask design is proper for the shape of the face). One may also want to recall that not all gasses need to enter through respiratory system, some can enter through any inappropriately protected skin.

Again, the above is only a sampling of things a supervisor may need, the list maybe completely different (and most likely is) for each supervisor who has responsibility over employees.

In many countries, the supervisor needs to ensure the safety of an employee. That does not mean he finds out the appropriate information, warns the employee of the hazards and the precautions to take and he is done. He needs to follow up to make sure the employee understood and follows what he/she has been told. The supervisor should actually document the instructions and the follow up. Whether the employee followed instructions or did not, both should be indicated and hopefully there is a copy for the employee, the supervisor and the company file.

All that is relatively straight forward and hardly needs to be commented about; supervisors already know that. Where a problem may occur is when there is conflict between supervisors’ responsibilities and the employees’ potential rights as an individual and which seemingly have very little to do with the actual job.

A person may have a beard. He may have every right to have the beard. If he has chosen to enter an area/occupation where use of a respirator and/or self contained breathing apparatus is required, there will be a problem which, for the employee as well as the supervisor may present a real problem. If the employee does not voluntarily shave or decide to leave, the supervisor may be left with a real serious problem; he must ensure the employee’s health and safety while on the job yet he cannot discriminate either. With the beard there cannot be sufficient seal to ensure dangerous gasses are not inhaled. There appears to be no clear, well defined regulation/guideline to indicate how “supervisor must ensure…..” when also confronted with “personal rights and freedoms of an individual>

An employee maybe an excellent employee from all points of view, except, every so often when the supervisor does the “follow up for ensuring … ”, the employee is caught taking a short cut and/or not the appropriate precautions. It is dilemma for both but a lot for a long term result is dictated by how will the supervisor reacts if both the “good work” and the “violations” continue.

If he/she does look the other way and ultimately “a minor incident” occurs, he/she may get a call from the partner of the employee. The spouse may, upon finding the facts, say “You failed.  You did not carry out your responsibilities. You knew what was required and happening yet you allowed all to happen. You should have fired him/her because I don’t care if he/she works for you or someone else. I want my husband/wife home healthy at the end of the day.”

If it turned out to be a more major, the supervisor may end up facing lawyers, and whomever else; if there was such an incident he/she has to be able to prove all that needed and that was required to be done was done, to ensure the worker would be OK. By the time it is all over, the supervisor  may himself/herself be faced having post dramatic stress  as those cases, by those who have lived through them personally, hardly ever end up soon and well.

There are those supervisors who have found a way to deal with those who like to take the short cuts or not follow the required safe guards. “If it was a machine that you got faced with, it is not going to ask if this was your first time or what your excuses you have for not following up with the proper procedures. Why should I? You are done.”

Respecting personal rights or dealing with employees on daily bases and carrying out the responsibilities of supervisor most times are without major complications. Not much is clearly spelled out or specified to resolve issues that may be in conflict with each other and thus, a lot as to how he deals with it is left in solely in the hands of the supervisor. If he is fortunate to have survived to his retirement without having to carry out heavy burdens, perhaps all has ended well.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to be the “Jack of all trades and a master of all”. One can be supplied with information, learn by one self, take courses, research and learn, but, at times one needs to seek out and have the help of those who don’t need to know all but only be masters of their own specialty.

Companies such as Wabi Iron & Steel Corp. have the capabilities to re-engineer obsolete industrial plant replacement components, either as a casting, or a fabrication, or as a combination of both.