A Health and Safety Professional’s Near Miss
The primary job function of an industrial hygienist is to analyze, identify, measure, and offer recommendations to control workplace hazards and stressors that can cause sickness, impaired health, or significant discomfort for workers and the public through chemical, physical, ergonomic, or biological exposures. In short, we work to keep people safe in workplaces.
I didn't grow up knowing that's what I wanted to do. As a student at Wilkes University, a small school near Scranton, Pennsylvania, I finally decided to pursue a BS in environmental engineering because it offered a wide range of career options in a growing field and opportunities for challenging and rewarding work.
But these opportunities weren't immediately available, so after I graduated, a friend who worked in the shipping department of a local company helped me land a part-time job as a second-shift forklift operator. I took the required forklift safety training, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, a series of safety training slides did little to prepare me for the hazards of forklift operations. I quickly clicked through the slides and barely passed my forklift operations and skills test. After observing my laughable hands-on demonstration, the friend who got me the job checked off that I was now a skilled forklift operator.
This was all the safety training I ever received during my illustrious four-month career in this role. The first day on the job, I dropped a 5,000-pound pallet of Quick-Dry from the top of a three-story rack and immediately became "that guy" throughout the warehouse.
As if that wasn't embarrassing enough, my failure to adequately follow forklift safety protocol resulted in a painful and scary injury—my own.
On the fateful day, I was moving material from the warehouse and down a loading ramp to a small box truck. Partway through this task, I needed to manually shift around some equipment in the back of the truck. I made the not-so-wise decision to park my forklift toward the top of the ramp, with the forks pointing toward the truck. The forklift inspection checklist requires the operator to ensure that the forklift's emergency brake is working properly, and if I had taken my daily inspection and training seriously, I would have noted that parking my forklift this way was a giant mistake. Seconds later, or so it seemed, I heard a commotion and looked up to see my forklift coming down the ramp. As the forks sped toward me, I had little choice but to throw my body backward and upward into one of the pallets I had loaded in the truck. Somehow I avoided catastrophe, but one of the forks went right through the side of my shoe, impaling my steel-toe boot and pinning it to the pallet.
To extricate myself from this mortifying situation, I completely ripped my boot off and walked out of the warehouse. Adrenaline kept me blissfully unaware of the trouble I could be in, but my left foot began to hurt quite a bit. I went home and got some sleep without telling anyone about the incident (never a good idea). As the days progressed, my foot turned black and blue, and I was having trouble walking without assistance.
Fortunately, I suffered no broken bones or long-term injuries, just the pain of my foot being struck by a fork and the embarrassment of knowing this injury could have been avoided had I taken my personal safety more seriously. But the forklift incident gave me a greater appreciation for the OEHS industry and ultimately spurred my interest in the world of safety and health. Today, I consider myself a versatile and fairly talented OEHS professional, with safety management and safety awareness my greatest strengths. Who would have thought?
A Better Culture
The forklift incident helped me understand how to develop an outstanding safety and health culture. I often share the following recommendations with workers and others:
- Pay attention to your surroundings.
- Do not ignore safety requirements or controls.
- Pay attention to critical safety training elements.
- Use equipment, PPE, and resources properly.
- Inform others and your supervisor of potentially unsafe conditions.
- Speak with your human resources team and employee resource group if you are overcome with stress or have suffered an injury.
- Avoid shortcuts.
- Follow standard operating procedures and work instructions.
- Promote a supportive working environment and culture.
- Take safety seriously and seek medical attention if you become injured or ill.
And lastly, I urge workers not to make the same mistakes I did through ignorance and neglect for my own well-being. We are only granted one opportunity to make the most of life, so don't let one avoidable situation, poor decision, or shortcut take that away from you.
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