This can is probably older than me…

When I was growing up, my dad had about a half dozen Folgers coffee cans full of old nuts, bolts, screws, and other random metal things. The collection consisted of the extras from every car project, every trip to the hardware store, every new piece of furniture; he’d even pick up poor little metal orphans off the street. I was at his house this past weekend and noticed one of them in his shed.

I can remember ‘helping’ him on projects when he’d hold up a bolt and say “find a nut that fits this.” Then hours of endless searching would ensue until I found that one perfect nut. I hated those cans.

Seeing them got me thinking about all the nuts we deal with in the safety field. I’m not just talking about all the crazy people that still think Heinrichs triangle is a real thing either. I’m talking about the parts and pieces of our safety programs. In this post, I want to talk through one of the most simple, innocuous, and seemingly well-intentioned pieces that nearly every company employs in one way or another: The Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). 

It’s one of the safety staples that everyone touts, and some even brag about. One of the foundational cornerstones of any good Safety Program. One of the essential Nuts and Bolts that holds any good safety machine together. 

People call them all different sorts of things. It could be labeled a Pre-Task Plan or Standard Operating Procedure. Maybe it’s a Task Risk Analysis where you work. Whatever your organization calls it, it’s there to help workers mitigate risk. Or is it? If you looked at it from the perspective of the nuts and bolts analogy, could you say for sure that you found the right nut and the right bold from your Folgers can? 

I tend to make weird correlations in my mind, so I realize that probably doesn’t quite make a whole bunch of sense. Let me break it down.

Let’s use the example of a JHA that comes in the form of a “Pre-Job Checklist.” It’s something your employees complete every morning before they get at it. The supervisor dutifully reads down the list, and the crew nods along as he checks YES or NO next to each line. I’m sure you’ve all seen the ritual. 

“Any fall hazards? Yes” 

“Everyone got their proper PPE? Yes” What does proper mean anyway? Nevermind, I’ll save that for later.

“Work at height hazards? No” And on it goes until they reach the end of the list and then pass the paper around for everyone to sign. You know, because signing stuff makes you safer…

What I just described is an exercise designed to protect the legal interest of the company, not the lives of its workers. On rare occasions, you might find an outstanding supervisor or two who makes a point to go beyond the checklist, but the only thing an activity like that does is cover the company’s ass. Plenty disagree with me on that, and I welcome the debate. Especially the ones who are quick to note how effective pre-flight checklists are. Here’s a note of caution on that line of thinking: PEOPLE AREN’T AIRPLANES! I can talk for hours about checklists (and I don’t just say that to convince you how interesting of a person I am).

If you’re willing to think beyond the checklist, consider this. What else could that conversation look like that would make it valuable to the worker? I submit that the answer is very (almost childishly) simple. Just discuss the work and how it will be done. It should look like this: 

What is our job today? Here the crew describes what they have to do. Are we replacing a pump? Great. How is that done? 

What do we need to get it done? Here the crew lists out and strategizes about what they need. Do you need parts from the stockroom? What size wrenches are required? Do we have all of the gaskets and lubricants needed to put it together?

Who’s doing what? Here roles are assigned. For simpler tasks, this may seem dumb since everyone should already know what they’re doing. Maybe. But calling it out will keep people from wandering around without purpose, doing ‘stuff’ to stay busy, and walking all over each other.

How could someone get hurt during this job? Here the crew brainstorms. They should talk about areas where extra coordination and communication is needed as well as considerations for other people who may be in the area. 

How do we make sure that doesn’t happen? Here the crew should discuss the measures they will take to account for the risk they just brainstormed about.

That’s all it takes. If you engage in discussions like the one I just laid out, you begin to engage your workers in the process. Not only that, but you’ve just taken the first steps toward “building safety in” to the process rather than allowing it to just be something EXTRA. You may not have noticed, but only two of the questions I asked had a safety specific connotation. By talking about things like tools, tasks, and strategy people will begin to get the idea that safety isn’t just “1st” and then on to the real work. They will begin to think of the safety elements as steps in the process. It’s a simple shift in thinking, but an important one.  

There’s one more pretty incredible thing about my Dad’s collection of scraps that’s worth special mention. I was so in awe of the vintage 80’s Foldgers can that he has been hanging onto since I was a kid that it almost didn’t click. I’ll cover that in Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 2. I purposely left out some really important things in this post, so make sure you check it out. Also, I’ll be giving away a free downloadable tool you can use to facilitate your Nuts and Bolts discussions.  

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6 Comments

  1. Very insightful, thoughtful and well written outline designed to get both supervisors and employees “on the same page”.
    The closest thing Safety has to a “Silver Bullet” is an INVOLVED supervisor to works with the employees to coach, explain and challenge everyone.

  2. It’s funny I read this today as I’m starting my second week on a jobsite riddled with safety issues and C.Y.A. paperwork.

    When I was working at Chevrons new H2 plant in Richmond, safety was on a pillar. A pre-task plan a mile long, a work-plan that followed. We even had to sketch a general plan of what we’d be doing that night. If you can imagine what a bunch of construction guys are drawing, then you can imagine how these went. This was filled out by your partner for the evening and signed by your foreman.

    The job on I’m on now, the JSA is most likely photocopied and we just sign the back page.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, you’re right. Getting together with the person you’re working with and writing down your task, in steps, and covering your bases on how you’ll do that all safely is far more effective than just checking off generic boxes. As for the sketches, they seemed silly, but a quick drawing of how to be on a ladder over 6ft and a stick figure that’s tied off the a proper anchor point makes you think about it far more than a checklist and a sign here at the end.

    Thanks for your insights

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