It’s often said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That maxim speaks to every topic and is poignantly applicable to the subject of workplace safety. As company owners and operators, we don’t often recognize all the aspects of workplace safety that bear on our businesses.
Work-at-height for staff is obviously important, but workplace safety goes far beyond that. It encompasses many conditions, potential hazards, and compliance requirements that an operator may not be aware of—either because they’ve never been taught or because they’ve never faced a close call or incident that called attention to their blind spots.
So, when it comes to developing a workplace safety system that 1) incorporates the aerial adventure industry’s diverse worker health and safety considerations, and 2) is compliant with workplace safety regulations, the process must begin with a robust hazard assessment.
A hazard assessment is a physical and mental walkthrough of your business that intentionally considers all aspects of operation through the questions:
1. Where are the potential hazards to employee health and safety?
2. What do we need to do to address those hazards?
At The Adventure Guild, we break hazards into two general categories: internal and external. External hazards are the things that typically come to mind when people think about hazards, such as height, weather, stinging insects, dangerous tools, etc.
Internal hazards, however, aren’t as obvious. They include things that diminish a worker’s ability to properly assess conditions around them, like a lack of mental and emotional alertness, lack of focus, psychological distractions, physical fatigue, and dehydration.
Internal hazards are a key component of what we refer to as the “arithmetic of an accident,” which contends that VBTs (very bad things) are usually the result of many small issues converging rather than a single thing going wrong.
Integral to the process of a workplace safety hazard assessment, then, is an underlying mindset that considers not only external hazards but also work conditions, schedules, employee policies, company culture, and systems of employee monitoring, all of which can help alleviate—or unintentionally contribute to—employees’ internal hazards.
Consider, for example, that an employee who stays locked into a repetitive task (such as a stationary zip send) for a long time can easily drift into complacency and experience diminished awareness. That makes repetitive tasks a potential internal hazard. An evaluation of how long employees spend doing repetitive tasks might lead an organization to develop a system that rotates staff to a new position or task every 30 minutes.
Use Existing Systems and Records
So, how do you identify and assess these internal and external hazards? The first and easiest place to start is by reviewing existing systems and records.
Workers’ comp claims. One great resource is to review any workers’ compensation claims that have been filed in recent years to learn about the specifics of individual incidents and also to identify any patterns of injury-generating hazards.
For example, if an employee was injured using the shop table saw, that’s good information. Maybe the individual had not been trained on the proper use of the saw but did the work anyway. If multiple employees have been injured using the table saw, including those who are trained to use it, that reveals a pattern that may require a multi-pronged mitigation strategy. Maybe the saw is missing a guard. Maybe the instruction being given is inadequate or wrong. Maybe it’s a combination of factors.
Incidents and near misses. The same holds true for internal records such as incident or near miss forms that involve staff. Here again, information on a single incident is helpful, but further review may also reveal a pattern.
For example, do several of the near miss accounts indicate staff are taking themselves off the life safety system at a particular spot in the course? If so, that could indicate a potential design flaw in the employee life safety system at that point, or that subconscious conditioning is leading to unsafe behavior. It could be both. A review of the forms can clue you in as to which part of the course to examine, allowing you to then think through why incidents keep happening at that spot.
Recurring illness or injuries is another thing to note. If staff repeatedly report getting cuts on their fingers at a specific spot on the course or keep getting poison ivy, for example, these are all indicators of things that need attention in your hazard assessment.
Engage staff. Another great resource in the assessment process is the staff. Get their impressions regarding current workplace hazards, paying special attention to things mentioned by multiple people. Again, patterns clue you into an existing problem that needs to be addressed.
Once you’ve grabbed the low-hanging fruit available in pre-existing records and through staff interviews, it’s time for a more expansive assessment.
Create a List
The next stage is to create a list of every area of the company that you need to consider in your hazard assessment.
This list will typically include, but may not be limited to:
• The course or courses.
• The life safety equipment used by the staff.
• The grounds, trails, stairs, etc., including slip, trip, and fall hazards as well as potentially dangerous flora/fauna.
• All areas of the facility—gear room, break room, etc.
• Outbuildings and maintenance work areas.
• Transportation—vans, ATV/UTVs, etc.
• Tools and tool storage. (e.g., Do saws have the proper guards?)
• All things electrical.
• Fire hazards.
• Chemicals of all kinds, including pesticides and herbicides.
Atypical hazards. In addition to hazards related to normal operations, you’ll also want to consider the hazards involved in emergency and non-typical or infrequent tasks, such as:
• Course, facility, vehicle, tool, or equipment repair. Course repair is a big one because you could be doing work that makes normal life safety systems non-viable, like when staff are replacing belay cables.
• Seasonal tasks, such as snow removal.
• Weather emergencies.
Once you have your list of the different aspects of your operation, you can proceed with identifying specific hazards in each.
Notes and photos. A good hazard assessment is best done by slowly and intentionally walking around the operation and taking notes regarding hazards or things that raise a question or need further investigation. A great tool for this process is the Notes app, or something similar, on a phone or iPad. These apps also allow you to insert photos, making it possible to place photos in-context within the notes. That way, once you’re done with your walkthrough, you have a valuable information set to work from in addressing the potential hazards you discover, and the ability to share the information with others within the organization.
Make a Mitigation Plan
The final step in your process is to develop a plan and timeline for addressing the hazards you discovered. You’ll want to prioritize any high-risk hazards that pose immediate danger to staff, deciding on short-term mitigation until long-term, permanent solutions can be implemented.
For example, if during your inspection you discover a gas leak on one of your UTVs that staff use to shuttle gear, renting one or using a different piece of equipment for the task could be a short-term solution until repairs can be made. Because, clearly, continuing to have employees use a piece of equipment that was found to be an explosive fire hazard would not be a good idea.
When it comes to the “who” of doing a proper hazard assessment, it’s important to involve key employees and company leadership, as well as any relevant third parties, such as a colleague or a consultant who can help you identify blind spots or provide knowledge in an area where you lack it.
Your professional course vendor/manufacturer or training entity can also be a huge asset in a hazard assessment due to their knowledge of the industry and their familiarity with other businesses and operations. And finally, OSHA offers a free consultation service to assist you in doing a thorough hazard assessment.
It’s important to enter the hazard assessment process with a healthy dose of humility and an openness to learning. Most experienced aerial adventure professionals assume they are automatically on top of the potential hazards our employees face. After all, we go about our work in the aerial adventure industry safely every day, right?
But no one is without blind spots. We’re all human, and as such, it’s soberingly easy to become comfortable, be complacent, or simply miss things. A hazard assessment is intended to reveal the obvious and not-so-obvious threats to employee safety and health within our organization so that we can properly address them.
Once you’ve finished your hazard assessment, you’ll have the data you need to begin developing or expanding your workplace safety program and bringing every aspect of your business into regulatory compliance.