A Risk Engineering Perspective on Workers' Compensation

A risk professional explains how to use risk engineering to eliminate equipment hazards in the workplace and reduce workers' compensation claims.

Risk engineering is at the foundation of all safety programs, risk positions, businesses, workers, environment, equipment maintenance and repairs of assets [equipment]. Specifically, how does risk engineering affect workers' compensation? The answer is in the equipment.

Through the equipment, workplace safety is addressed. Risk engineering accomplishes this in two ways:1) Equalized risk assessment, and 2) reliability-centered maintenance (RCM). Workplace safety fits very well with these.

Equalized risk assessment integrates business risks with injuries and fatalities. Furthermore, an assessment provides a picture of the facility's risks, then prioritizes them. In the real world, workers are constantly working around equipment; therefore, the welfare of the worker is contingent on the virtue of the equipment.

For example, a machine is located in a field with no one in sight and requires no human involvement.In this case, only business is at risk. However, everyday workers are exposed to equipment hazards, therefore they need to be treated equally and together with business risk for maximum benefit.

RCM promotes safety, training, environmental protection devices, maintenance, repairs and analysis of equipment. RCM is proactive, and plans for failures; however, RCM can be reactive through root cause analysis. In either case, the benefit is to improve asset management, which includes preventing injuries and fatalities. Why does RCM work? RCM involves people from maintenance, production, safety and environmental, and management. Consider the goals of each: 1) businessperson -- expenses, 2) maintenance manager-how much, 3.) production manager -- how long, 4) safety director -- how safe. These goals are understandably different and are brought together by the RCM process.

How Does RCM Work

Here are three oversimplified examples that typify how RCM could have prevented three workers' compensation claims.

1. A worker encounters a slip hazard while operating a machine. Lube oil has been leaking on the floor slowly and saturating the floor. Maintenance knew of the leak but the machine was not broken by their interpretation [Usually, a leak is the first sign of a failure]. The maintenance manager found the machine was still operating and not making noise, so the leak was not important. The production manager determined there was no failure either, for production and quality had not been affected. The safety and environmental department identified the slip hazard and concluded that containment and cleanup would be needed. Had RCM been used, this failure would have been identified as a possible serious problem that had not yet manifested itself. By ignoring the symptom, a slip hazard developed and the equipment continued to degrade.

2. A welder is injured after falling through the roof of an aboveground storage tank [AST]. He was not wearing fall protection gear, and handrails around the AST were providing a false sense of security to him. The AST roof was not suspected of being a risk. After all, the AST was just removed from service for maintenance. There were no holes in the roof, and no one questioned the integrity of the roof. By using the RCM process of failure mode effects analysis (FMEA) a failure would have been recognized, and steps would have been taken to prevent the welder's injury.

3. A worker is severely burned minutes after the switch was closed while standing in front of an enclosed switch. The journeyman electrician may possibly have a permanent disability. Here RCM would have identified the failure modes through FMEA because the most experienced electrician would have been part of the RCM development. The most experienced/knowledgeable person has unique site-specific contributions that could have prevented the workers' compensation claim.

RCM Can Reduce Workers' Comp

RCM is forward-looking and is a long-term tool to increase reliability and bring about cost-effective techniques. RCM makes everyone a vital part of the process. The equipment is the focal point for all workers. Therefore, make the equipment safe, and then the workers will be safe. Business would benefit by addressing asset management programs such as RCM on a global scale on their equipment.

When a facility employs a large number of workers, workplace injuries can occur repetitively. As an accident investigator, hindsight is easy, but taking a proactive position is not easy. Whether discussing equalized risk assessment or RCM, workers' compensation is given equal treatment. These risk engineering tools will not eliminate the need for Job Safety Analysis or the need to identify slip hazards that are not associated with equipment. There will always be a role for safety, and a future for risk engineering.

Roland O'Brien-Bills is founder and president of Accident Inspection Specialists Inc. (AIS) in Gloversville, N.Y. He is an industry veteran with nearly 27 years of technical expertise with more than $30 million in accident investigation experience and 16 years as a risk professional. He is credited with developing the Equalized Risk Assessment, which is an exacting tool for executives and managers to use on equipment, boilers, pressure vessels, machinery and transformers. O'Brien-Bills has a master's degree in safety engineering as well as a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and an associate's degree in math science.

To view AIS's Web site, got to www.accidents-inspections.com

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