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May 2003


The tragic cost of cutting corners

By Cecil Demers

Before dawn on an extremely cold morning recently, the owner/operator of a cut-to-length processor climbed down from the cab, leaving the machine running and the hydraulics engaged. As the machine warmed up, he was anxious to begin work on removing the measuring wheel located in the processing head, which measures the length of the logs to be cut. The processor head was resting on the ground in the upright position.

The owner/operator, who had five years experience, was inside the processor head, his head and shoulders between the feed rollers that guide the logs into it. As he attempted to manually remove the spring-loaded measuring wheel, a co-worker was assisting him with a pry-bar. Shortly after the owner/operator began pulling on the measuring wheel, the unthinkable happened. The feed rollers closed in on him, pinning and crushing his head and upper shoulders. How can something this horrible happen? How could an experienced operator even think of completing this type of repair without first shutting down the machine and ensuring a zero energy state? What part, if any, did the pry-bar used by his helper play in the incident? Is that aspect even relevant?

The short answer is we don’t know for sure, at least on the specifics. However, we do know that risk perception by the operator is often at the root of the problem in these situations. Many heavy equipment operators who become very familiar with their machines and who choose to ignore safe operating procedures in order to cut corners will often experience a false sense of security. This sense of security grows the more often they do something—a repair, routine maintenance—without an accident occurring.

Their perception of the risk in an obviously very hazardous situation is minimized. In this particular case, we don’t know how often the operator may have completed this same procedure in the same way without incident. “It’s never going happen to me” and “I’ve done it hundreds of times” are common thoughts. So they keep on doing it, until that one-in-three-hundred chance—or higher—decides to show its ugly face.

Or perhaps a new twist is introduced to the up-until-now unsafe practice, such as the helper with the pry bar in this situation. Every day in Canada’s forestry operations, workers are testing the odds, ignoring safe practices and creeping ever closer to that one time something catastrophic is going to happen. To some extent, no amount of knowledge and skill training, warning stickers and decals or grim statistics about serious injuries and fatalities will reduce these types of terrible incidents. The key is a worker’s behaviour. Behaviour must change—it’s as simple as that. Workers have to look beyond the urge to cut corners, to do it “my way”. They have to adhere to tried and true safety practices, no matter how much of a hurry they’re in.

No matter how stressed out they are about the workload, no matter how cold or hot it is, safety must come first—that phrase can’t just be an empty slogan. Workers need to do things the right way, and realize the value in doing it the right way. Here are the underlying details about this tragic situation. In cold weather, operators of mechanical harvesting equipment sometimes leave their machines running through the night or between shifts to keep the hydraulic fluids warm. In this case, the owner/operator started up the processor in the morning and began to do maintenance work while the machine was warming up and without deactivating the hydraulics from the cab.

This failure to shut down and lock out the hydraulics and the electronic components before performing maintenance was the major contributing factor in the operator’s death. Even a slight movement of the measuring wheel would have been enough to send a signal back to the computer, automatically triggering a command to the feed rollers—and resulting in his upper body being crushed. Even in extremely cold weather, when machinery needs to be warmed up to function properly, the only safe way to do most maintenance work is with the equipment shut down and locked out.

In this case, the cut-to-length processor should have been started up only after the work on the measuring wheel was completed. If there is any doubt about how to perform the repairs or maintenance work, the owner’s manual should be consulted and, if necessary, the work should be done by more qualified personnel. For most types of maintenance, work must never be done on equipment unless the equipment is shut down, locked out and in a zero-energy state (some maintenance procedures require that the machine be running; hazard control measures designed to protect the maintenance worker must be followed in these cases). If this simple—but crucial—rule of occupational health and safety had been followed, this fatal incident would not have occurred.

This owner/operator would have lived and would have returned to his family that night. Instead, the family is now left only with the sad prospect of a lifetime without a husband, without a father. It is too high a price to pay for cutting corners.

Cecil Demers is CEO of the Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association.

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