Keeping HVAC Technicians Safe is Paramount
If so, how will we ever get anything fixed?
24 years in the Navy on submarines and aircraft carriers, I’ve been exposed to a myriad of safety programs and safety catchphrases. When I was onboard the USS Carl Vinson, the catchphrase at the time was, “Safety is Paramount.” Our commanding officer challenged that by saying, “Safety isn’t paramount. If it were, we would never do anything.” He used this as a segue to discuss risk management. The general idea is there are jobs that must be done that aren’t “safe.” They have risks associated with them. HVAC safety is no different. On a day-to-day basis our HVAC technicians manage a number of safety risks that could cause bodily harm:
- Driving safety
- Electrical safety
- Chemical safety
- Eye protection
- Lifting and moving
- Fall protection
- Hearing protection
- Working in extreme temperatures
- Rotating equipment
- Tool safety
Too often, HVAC technicians fall into the attitude that accidents are inevitable. So, why should I take a bunch of safety precautions that hinder me from doing my job. Any HVAC business that wants its HVAC technicians to take the necessary precautions must have a zero tolerance attitude. We have to work extra hard to make safety gear and the proper equipment available. A consistent training program is effective. There are a number of resources for these. One resource that you are already paying for but maybe haven’t thought of is your insurance company. Ask your agent if they have access to training materials that you could use.
Managing HVAC Safety Risks
Books have been written on risk management. Entire occupations and companies are built around it. We couldn’t scratch the surface of the subject in just one article. Neither can the average, run-of-the-mill HVAC business afford to hire a risk manager. But don’t underestimate the impact of having a very basic discussion about it with your team will have. An HVAC business owner taking the time to discuss HVAC safety risk with their team will give importance to the subject. An HVAC technician talking through the management process on a regular basis will help them to start applying it themselves. What we’ll attempt to do here is provide a basic framework for you to have these discussions with your HVAC technicians. Then we’ll talk through a couple of basic examples.
Note: This is not a substitute for basic safety precautions or OSHA regulations. Safety glasses, hearing protection, slip resistant shoes, ladder safety, precautions to avoid electric shock while working on electrical equipment, storage of gas cylinders, tag procedures, follow signage, and on and on.
4 Basic Steps to HVAC Safety Risk Management
If you did an internet search for risk management, you would be overwhelmed with content, ads, articles, videos, podcasts, etc. So again this is just a basic overview so that you can begin to have these discussions with your HVAC technicians. Here are the 4 basic steps:
- Identify the potential hazards
- Analyze the risk
- Treat the risk or take the necessary precautions
- Monitor the risk
Identify the potential hazards
Let’s be specific and detailed here. If the subject is driving safety and we ask, “What is the hazard?” Someone is sure to say, “You could have an accident.” This makes the risk too general which only serves to minimize it and characterize it as inevitable. If we talk about a particular road hazard, vehicles being in proper working order, or weather conditions, we can point to areas where an HVAC technician might need to exercise caution. If we’re working on electrical equipment or electrical wiring, don’t generalize it as getting shocked. Point to the particular dangers, the particular thing that will shock you and the voltage that could potentially be present.
Analyze the risk
Now that we’ve identified the hazard, we have to classify it by likelihood and consequence. An important aspect here is to be specific to your organization or to the HVAC technician doing the job. If everyone has been working long hours, that could increase the likelihood. A particular HVAC system or an inexperienced HVAC technician might also increase the likelihood. The consequence could vary between minor injury and loss of life. Although not related directly to HVAC safety, the financial consequence should be discussed. HVAC Tech Jones may be willing to take a little extra risk if it only affects him and less likely if he knows it puts everyone at risk or might cost him money.
Treat the risk or take the necessary precautions
Here we’re asking, “What do we do to make this less likely or can we lessen the consequences in some way?” This could include additional help, extra supervision, special tools or equipment, lifting equipment, personal protective equipment, or rescheduling the event.
Monitor the risk
Because we’ve been specific, we can now more easily identify extenuating circumstances that might create new hazards or change the risk classification and warrant additional treatment. When you evaluated the risk, you may not have accounted for the job site being in steep terrain. Other examples that could change the risk identification or classification and warrant extra precaution:
- Due to water leaks, HVAC technicians are working in standing water
- An heating and air conditioning system installed on a houseboat
- The air conditioning system has been physically damaged
- The job wasn’t planned to last multiple days
“Education is what’s left over after you’ve forgotten everything you learned in school.” -Albert Einstein
Hopefully, this brief introduction helps you to see how having these discussions will help protect your employees. By maintaining a steady strain on this, your HVAC technicians may never become risk management experts. But they will start to have an eye for identifying hazards. They will have a better feel for how you the owner classifies risk and what you accept as treatment. Just as importantly, they will take better notice of conditions that might change your analysis.