Safety Articles

Article # 5103

Head and Face Protection - That's Using your Noggin

Scott Farmer of nickel and cobalt manufacturer has a special memento that he shares with new employees during their safety orientation classes - a hard hat split in half. Farmer, who is manager of safety, security and medical for this producer of high performance nickel and cobalt-based alloys, knows that a picture speaks a thousand words. In this case, the picture relates the story of a hard hat that did its job, and a worker who lived to tell the tale.

One day in 1997, a group of workers were removing slag from the basement of the nickel and cobalt facility by placing the slag in 55 gallon drums and transporting the drums to the main floor with an overhead crane. One of the workers went down into the basement to get a shovel. As he began to walk up the stairs, a piece of slag fell on his head. "The slag weighed about 52 pounds," says Farmer. "And it fell about 20 feet before hitting him in the head. That was a tremendous impact." The worker was rushed to the hospital where he was treated for injuries to the head, neck and shoulder. "Considering the severity of the accident," notes Farmer, "we were all amazed at the worker's minor injuries. He only had to receive five stitches in his scalp area - that was it. No fractures. No serious injury. There's no question about it; his hard hat saved his life."

Protecting Workers with Mandatory Policies
Like many other manufacturing facilities, the nickel and cobalt facility requires all workers to wear hard hats while inside the manufacturing plant. And anyone who has any doubts about the need for the policy only needs to take a look at the hat in Scott Farmer's office to be convinced. Cathy Daves, safety manager for farm implements, agrees that a mandatory hard hat policy is critical in her facility. "We have an overhead monorail and storage system," she explains. "So there's no question that hard hats are needed where the monorail is located. There might be a few places where a hard hat wouldn't be absolutely necessary. But it's much easier to have a plantwide policy than to designate only certain areas as hard hat areas." Daves also has a compelling hard hat story with a happy ending. "About a year ago a large piece of equipment fell off the monorail and landed on a worker's head," she explains. "The only damage was that he bruised his ear. Who knows what would have happened without the hard hat." Both Farmer and Daves use the Fibre Metal hats supplied by Magid. "It's our standard," notes Daves. "Everyone is very happy with it."

Rob Calvin, office manager with a construction and engineering services notes that his facility also has a mandatory hard hat policy. At this supplier of engineering and construction services to unilities, employees must wear hard hats at all times in the plant facility. "We had a little problem with our welders," he notes. "With the hat we were using in the past, they had to keep switching to accommodate the headbands for their welding helmets. But now we're using a ratchet suspension hat from Magid. Now they can keep their headbands on all the time." Sean Yetas a recycler of lead-bearing materials, notes that at his facility's location he also has to worry about protecting workers' heads from the cold in the winter. "We're located in Minnesota," he says. "It can get very cold here in January and February. That's when we make sure we have plenty of liners on hand. Those hats can get awfully cold. The liners sure make a difference!"

Reducing noise exposure with earplugs
Protecting workers' heads requires attention to more than the top of the head. Many employers are addressing the topic of noise exposure and seeking ways to protect workers from long-term damage. Daves notes that the noise level at her facility can get high. "There's so much metal here," she says. "And lots of banging and clanging. It's very, very loud. We recently instituted a hearing protection policy requiring earplugs all throughout the plant and warehouse. I have to admit that people weren't too excited in the beginning. Nobody likes change, even if it's a change for their own good. But everyone has adjusted. Protecting their hearing is important to us."

Daves makes it easy for workers to be comfortable with the policy, offering them the choice of several styles. Workers can use ear muffs or the disposable ear plugs. "It's a personal choice," she explains. "Some people don't like to put things in their ears. Others don't want a muff. The muffs can wrap around the back of the head to fit with the hard hats, and that's a plus. But what ever they want to use is fine with me. The important thing is that they have protection on at all times. A lot of companies don't offer the choices we do. But we want to accommodate everybody."

Farmer of the nickel and cobalt manufacturer also has a mandatory ear protection policy at his facility. "We don't want our employees to suffer any long-term effects," he says. "It can get very noisy here. There are many repetitious high-level noises. Furnaces, mills, bar straightener, grinders, saws, nail guns. Pretty noisy stuff! And then there are the tools our maintenance people use, like jackhammers. The policy is a definite need."

Calvin from the construction and engineering services notes that the noise levels vary so much at his facility that ear plugs are required only in designated high noise level areas. Disposable plugs are the most convenient here. Employees can use and dispose of them as needed. Yetas notes that at his facility, where ear protection is mandatory, most wear the disposable kind. "Some wear the hard hat and ear muff combination," he says. "But workers who must wear faceshields can't wear the combination hat. So they wear the disposables. It's a lot of equipment - but all very necessary!"

Helping workers "breathe easy" with respirators
Respirators are another critical safety need in certain industries and occupations. For example, at a company were workers are in contact with lead-bearing materials, respirators must be worn all the time. "Whether they're unloading materials, working in the refinery area or doing maintenance work, our employees must wear a respirator. Most of them prefer the half mask kind," notes Yetas, "They work best with all the other gear, including hard hats, earplugs and safety glasses."

Comfort is just one factor in choosing a respirator. The most important one is matching the respirator to the job's protection needs. Wearing the wrong respirator can be more dangerous than wearing no respirator at all. The most common masks, filtration masks, screen out contaminants as you breathe. These keep out airborne particles and some gases and vapors. Purifying respirators contain chemical cartridges or filtration devices that trap contaminants before they are breathed. Air-supplying respirators actually supply clean air from an outside source, either a tank or through a hose attached to an outside air tank. Once the appropriate masks have been identified, workers need to be properly trained and policies need to be implemented to enforce safety guidelines.

Farmer says that his company is now looking at whether on not a mandatory respirator policy is necessary at his facility. "We're using respirators in areas where they change the stokes and furnaces," he notes. "And any employees who ask for respirators can get them. We have a supply of disposable respirators on hand, but we're concerned that we might need a firmer policy." Farmer recently brought in an industrial hygienist to do some sampling. "We'll take the next steps based on the hygienist's findings. If we need a stricter policy and have to provide more equipment, we'll do it, " he says. Our employees' long-term health is what's important."

Avoiding "headaches" with proper training
Matching the equipment to the job and creating necessary policies are critical elements of any safety program. But they aren't enough. Employees must be properly trained. Farmer notes that training of new hires is critical. "We spend three days on new hire safety training," he explains. "We want workers to know how their equipment should fit, how to care for it and how to dispose of it. Most importantly, we want them to know why they're using it. I think that if employees understand the value of their personal protective equipment and recognize that we care about their well-being, they'll be more responsive and cooperative."

Facing the challenges head on
These companies know the importance of protecting employees' heads and faces. But, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey, not all employers are as concerned. The survey notes that most workers who suffer head injuries from an impact were not wearing any head protection and many were not required to. And the majority of these injuries occurred while the workers were performing their regular duties. Statistics on eye injuries are similar. Sixty percent of those who suffered eye injuries weren't wearing any protective eye equipment.

Ideally, companies would like to eliminate or control all risks of head injuries through engineering or other methods. But as the worker at the nickel and cobalt facility who was hit by falling slag can attest, it's difficult to control every type of potential situation. That's why providing protective equipment and enforcing policies are critical steps for employers. That's using the ol' noggin.