Tunnel vision -- the term can carry hefty negative connotations. That is certainly the case when it comes to occupational health and safety, where failure to consider anything but what's directly ahead can be hazardous indeed.
Take a road construction site, where a narrow hazard assessment overlooks how chemical use at Point A may result in spray drift at Point B. Or a warehouse worker unaware of a nearby forklift manoeuvring under the weight of an unsteady load. Or a plumber soldering within close proximity to an unknown ignition source. All might best be described as proximity hazards.
"We can all get tunnel vision very easily and just say, 'Here's my group and we're doing this and that's all I'm responsible for,'" says Yvonne O'Reilly, head of O'Reilly Health & Safety Consulting in Toronto.
To broaden the outlook, O'Reilly suggests that a company consider using a liaison person in multi-employer or complex work environments. The various work tasks could be assessed to ensure that demands and conditions particular to one task will not create a safety conflict with another.
RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND
Alain Langlais, an Ottawa-based program development and delivery consultant for the Industrial Accident Prevention Association, says an effective hazard assessment should review five factors: people, equipment, material, environment and process. "If you address those five issues, you're going to be looking at pretty much a 360-degree assessment," Langlais says.
Examining the surrounding environment could reveal hazards not in the immediate proximity of a worker, he says. "You don't just look at the big thing that's in your face. You've got to look at some of the more subtle things."
Hazard assessment and coordination are critical to get the big picture. Crews working on two separate maintenance jobs along a stretch of the Toronto Transit Commission's (TTC) subway system early one morning in February, 2006 could likely attest to that.
A number of workers were exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) while an asbestos abatement crew and a nearby man-made mineral fibre (MMMF) team were working in the tunnels between the Lawrence and Eglinton stations in midtown Toronto.
To clean the MMMF off the tunnel walls, that crew was using a generator and two power washers, all three of which were fuelled by gasoline. However, the presence of the asbestos crew meant the ventilation system in the area had to be shut down to prevent "dispersal of asbestos fibres into the air," Justice Marion Lane of the Ontario Court of Justice notes in a decision handed down this past January. (Justice Lane was ruling on oh&s charges laid against a TTC manager following the incident. He was acquitted on all counts.)
At about 4:13 am, the MMMF crew foreman reported to TTC Transit Control that workers had been overcome by fumes. When responders reached them more than an hour later, the concentration of CO in the air exceeded 1,000 parts per million, 10 times Ontario's short-term exposure limit.
The TTC was subsequently levied penalties of slightly more than $200,000 in connection with the incident.
Justice Lane cited significant oh&s deficiencies in the TTC's night work schedulling and written procedures. "There was no system in place to prevent the overlapping of work crews with conflicting ventilation requirements, there was no requirement for a hazard/risk assessment to be submitted for any requested work in the subway tunnel, and there was no means of prioritizing the schedulled work," she writes. "Had such policies and practices been in place and enforced in the schedulling of night work on the run sheets, the carbon monoxide exposure incident could have been avoided."
Justice Lane further notes that a little more than a year before the exposures, the transit commission became aware of CO concerns voiced by the MMMF crew. A work refusal launched under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act in December of 2004 revolved around ventilation and air quality issues. The complaint resulted in the TTC providing the crews portable fans equipped with hoses that could remove exhaust gases a safe distance away from the work area.
Between March of 2005 and the CO exposure in February of 2006, however, the fans fell into disuse. Justice Lane writes the shortcoming was coupled with a "substantial" turnover of supervisory staff around the MMMF crew over that period.
"In the [staff] shuffle, it is apparent that there was a lack of institutional memory about safety concerns that had been raised about carbon monoxide and about [the] equipment and procedures that had previously been adopted to protect the workers," she notes. "The lack of clear documentation about the hazard of carbon monoxide and about recommended equipment and procedures to divert the fumes from the workers, as well as the lack of training on this issue," were causal factors of the 2006 incident, Justice Lane adds.
MIX AND MATCH
Big or small, work-related incidents can unfold when the hazards of seemingly unrelated tasks are not taken into account and coordination falls short, suggests safety consultant Theo Kowalchuk, president of 1Life Workplace Safety & Health in Winnipeg. Effective "risk perception" demands that workers and employers always question what could go wrong at the work site, Kowalchuk emphasizes.
Too often, she suggests, people become complacent and stop asking that question. And without highly attuned risk perception, Kowalchuk argues any benefit of good communication between workers or subcontractors will be lost because hazards will go unnoticed and, thus, uncontrolled.
In residential and commercial construction, the potential for proximity hazards exists whenever two or more trades are working at the same site, says Paul Chiasson, an oh&s advisor with the Nova Scotia Construction Safety Association in Dartmouth. Because the constructor (or prime contractor) has overall responsibility for site safety, it must ensure tasks are coordinated to avoid creation of risks, Chiasson says.
The larger and more complex the site, the greater the need for an oh&s advisor who can step back and view the whole picture. "Communication has to be kept wide open," he advises, noting that tool box talks, oh&s meetings and joint health and safety committee sessions are all ways for workers and supervisors on site to gather and share information.
Hazards that originate elsewhere are not limited to any one industry, says Langlais. "Any time you have concurrent activity at a work site, you're wide open for those proximity-type hazards," he suggests, pointing to a recent experience.
Langlais was in an industrial facility's machine shop area he had been commissioned to review when a 4.5-kilogram piece of material came crashing through the ceiling, landing just four metres away from him. The material originated from a crew carrying out renovations at the facility.
Neither the crew members nor Langlais were aware of each other's location. Had they been, he says, the two parties could have coordinated their tasks and likely avoided the too-close- for-comfort incident.
IT'S THE LAW
Opinion is split on whether or not governments should beef up current legislative or regulatory requirements by outlining specific and necessary steps in the hazard assessment process. As it stands, there is a bit of this and that, with terms varying from province to province.
For example, British Columbia's Occupational Health and Safety Regulation states "every employer must ensure that regular inspections are made of all workplaces, including buildings, structures, grounds, excavations, tools, equipment, machinery and work methods and practices, at intervals that will prevent the development of unsafe working conditions."
Alberta and federal legislation, for their parts, make specific reference to hazard assessment. Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Code says an employer "must assess a work site and identify existing and potential hazards before work begins at the work site or prior to the construction of a new work site." It further notes an assessment must be repeated "at reasonably practicable intervals to prevent the development of unsafe" conditions.
As for federally regulated sectors, the oh&s regulations under Part II of the Canada Labour Code spell out the need for employers to identify and assess workplace hazards. The regulations even cite specific steps for employers to take during assessment, such as considering past incident reports, records of hazardous substances and first aid information.
Ontario's OH&S Act and regulations require, in general and specific ways, that assessments be carried out, says Charles Hurdon, a partner at Ogilvy Renault LLP in Ottawa.
"In some circumstances, such as hazard assessments in confined spaces, the assessment must be undertaken as prescribed [by regulations]," Hurdon notes. "In most circumstances, however, they will need to be conducted as part of an overall due diligence policy and frequency will depend on the particular workplace in question."
GENERAL AND SPECIFIC
Legislation in Canada is not very specific when it comes to hazard assessment methodology and timing, says Norm Keith, a partner with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto. "It's just left very much up in the air," Keith suggests.
From a workplace safety standpoint, he says that it is "probably a good thing" to have a legal requirement for assessments, but adds that "it would be a little more helpful if [governments] set out the purpose of [an assessment] as well the process for doing it."
That issue was raised as part of proceedings against Lonkar Well Testing Ltd. in Alberta, for which Keith served as counsel. The company faced two charges under Alberta's OH&S Act in connection with a fatal accident in January, 2005. One charge cited the company's failure to conduct a hazard assessment, as required by provincial law.
In an April, 2008 ruling, Judge J. C. Spence of the Provincial Court of Alberta dismissed the charge, noting that a general hazard assessment report prepared by Lonkar Well Testing and other employers at the work site was sufficient to meet employer obligations.
In his ruling, Judge Spence described the assessment as "lacking in detail," but noted that Alberta's OH&S Code does not speak to the degree of "particularity" that is required. If more detailed reports are needed, the decision points out, then the provincial government, not the courts, should set the parameters.
O'Reilly is of the mind that legislative requirements are adequate, arguing that it is not possible for legislation and regulations to cover every risk imaginable. "The fact that [employers] have to assess and manage [their] own risks and inform [others] of the hazards should protect workers. The challenge is knowing the full expectation of the regulator and how to demonstrate" that obligations have been met, she goes on to say.
Still, Kowalchuk suggests it would be beneficial if governments, at the very least, issued best practices for hazard assessment methods. Doing so would help define employer due diligence as it relates to said assessments.
Whether or not governments offer more legislative guidance in the future, Keith advises that it is in the best interests of employers to develop thorough assessments and safe work procedures. "A lot of accidents and injuries are avoidable through a little more planning and through a formalized hazard assessment process," he says.
Dan Birch is acting assistant editor of OHS CANADA.