Is It Really a Four Letter Word?

by Chris D. Powell
Posted 05/23/2005

Before you say, “Here comes another rant from C. Editor Powell,” let’s stop for a moment and give some serious thought to the subject of safety. All of us involved with things that shake and break have to share this concern! In fact, some of us have to be more concerned than others, especially those who fell into the gene pool when the life guard was not looking. (That was a previous editorial.)

I got the ‘four letter’ title from OSHA, one of my favorite topics. For those of you who were forced into an engineering curriculum because of the inherent coolness of being a gear-head, but are really a frustrated English major at heart, you are probably muttering that OSHA is not a word, it is an acronym. To which I respond that it ‘used’ to be an acronym. You see, after a certain period of time, people no longer associate distinct meanings with the acronym’s letters, such as O, S, H, and A. In fact, there are probably very few people who even remember for what the letters stand. It is at such time that ‘acronyms’ become ‘words’ by definition. Much like FreddieMac and FannieMae. Does anyone remember for what the letters once stood?
Safety in its purest sense is a topic to be taken with the greatest of seriousness and I will go toe to toe with anyone who wants to debate! My point herein is that there are things to worry about and then there’s the rest. I have experienced many interesting situations and have seen vast varieties of things that shake and break. Some sojourns have resulted in intellectual discussions with the local safety police, mostly in regard to interpretation of the letter, versus the intent, of what should be of concern. My philosophy is most probably attributed to some sort of latent radicalism with a default mechanism that leans toward the pragmatic. Please do not misunderstand, my body parts are prized possessions. I have no desire to put my eyes, ears, limbs and other personal belongings at risk! On the other hand, when there is no risk, well, that is when my problematic pragmatism kicks in and causes the safety police to seek me out like magnetic north.

Take for example reviewing data in the remotest of factory corners, so remote in fact that it should have been called a warehouse with no goods. Enter Mr.
Safety, who inquires whether said engineer has safety glasses. Right here, Mr. Safety. “Put them on,” he responds, “so you don’t poke yourself in the eye with a pencil. Didn’t you see the sign?” Sign? How did this guy find me?

I was once told to watch where I stuck my fingers around certain machines. Good advice, but I like my fingers and was already paying particular attention to keeping them away from moving parts. The advisor expanded that he was not talking about moving parts, he was talking about black widow spiders. He then warned that they hide around corners and jump out onto your hand! There were no signs about spiders! And, you might also want to keep an eye out for scorpions; they are feisty little creatures that will chase you. No need to be too concerned with rattle snakes, only a couple got in the plant last year, so you really don’t have to worry about them. No sign about that either.

Then there was the time of being asked if those work boots of mine had steel toes. “You need steel toes, hard hat and safety glasses because this is a construction site.” But, there is no construction! Yes, but it is a ‘designated’ construction site and you have to have proper safety equipment. Why? Because it’s designated! But, there is nothing here! It’s designated!

My head technician and I had to go to the top of a three story flat topped control building to observe third party installation of strain gages. Up two stories of scaffolding, onto an extension ladder and onto the roof. I held the ladder for him and he reciprocated for me. After arriving safely back onto mother earth, we were questioned as to why we did not have safety harnesses. Mr. Pragmatic pointed out that there was no railing on the roof for said harness to attach. Doesn’t matter, you have to wear a harness next time you are on the roof. I suppose we all have our priorities. For some it is crossing t’s and dotting i’s without regard to any word’s actual spelling. Personally, blocking and tying off the ladder was a real safety issue and I could not concern myself with clipping a harness to air.

Hard hats are required inside Buildings A and B, but not C. Therefore, hard hats are not necessary outside of A, but must be worn between A and B, but not between B and C. Who thinks up this stuff?

At one point in my early and notably naive years, I was asked to look at a motor/generator set. I was truly at awe being led to the equipment via a long corridor filled with antique equipment. Big knife switches, resistors, coils – all on their own panels, properly labeled and each surrounded by a yellow line on the 1920s brown tile floor. It was interesting to see what pre-OSHA stuff was like in this time capsule of an Edison-like lab. Back to the MG. Data were being collected and analyzed when a company employee happened to come upon me. He calmly interrupted my ponderous mood and said, “By the way, don’t slide your chair back any farther, that exposed panel is live with 10,000 volts.” I should have recognized the OSHA approved yellow line.

Let me comment about high pressure and how it makes me extremely cautious. A pump in question was in a test area, was not running, was not pressurized, nor was anything else running around it, in fact, nothing was going on for as far as one could see and hear. As I was looking upon said pump, I heard a voice. It was Mr. Safety asking if I had safety glasses. (How does he keep finding me?) Yes, right here. As I put them on, my pragmatic heart could only hope that he would spinout on the steel deck plate covered with a mixture of diesel fuel and water that he so gracefully skated across to find me. I suppose that if one fell and broke a leg, at least you could see how badly it was broken.

Oh, it gets better. Someone had the great idea of actually running the pump. OK, now I really have need of my safety glasses, hearing protection, and steel toes. Interesting that I didn’t need a hard hat! I navigated the skating rink of a deck plate and found it to be an excellent demonstration for Newton’s Laws of Motion. I even heard that the local Olympic trials were going to be held there next year as a company tax deductible donation. The pump started. Over the diesel’s drone and the pump’s whine, verbal information began to disseminate, but it was hard to hear with ear plugs. I did pick up something to the effect that it would not be a good idea to stand over near a certain area because such and such plug has repeatedly blown out in that general direction. And, a plug over here blows out too, but it goes to the parking lot. (To the parking lot?) And, you probably should avoid walking behind here because another part could blow out, but it hasn’t yet.

Those hardly intelligible words caused me to stop briefly for a mental calculation. My conclusion was that not even body armor would stop a 3 in. projectile with 22,000 lbs of thrust! Maybe that’s why I didn’t need a hard hat. At least it’s nice to know that I would see the parts coming at me, and the bang wouldn’t hurt my ears, and my toes would not be crushed although my crumpled and mangled body would land in the parking lot! I can just envision the crowd as it surrounds my former body and current mess, wondering how they will get their cars out of the lot to go home, while someone questions the location of my hard hat, wondering what color it was.

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