Creating a culture of safety

October 28, 2011

Culture is a highly misunderstood and misused word, thus the need for an explanation: culture refers to a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterise an institution, organisation or group.

Gary Olsen from TigerCat

by Gary Olsen

If we consider this definition of culture and apply it to safety with regards to Africa in comparison to say Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America and even a small place like Singapore, then we are immediately on the proverbial back foot. If we compare safety in South Africa with most of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, then we can be a bit more positive and feel that we are headed towards a culture of safety, but we are certainly not there by a long way.

Benchmarking against other nations is a practice often used to see where we stand in the world safety order. It is a fact that the top performing countries have achieved a culture of safety in that basic policy, conventions, rules and regulations have been transformed into everyday behaviour, and not just something adhered to in the workplace.

Safety begins at home
The bottom line is that safety begins at home, how you brush your teeth, how you get out the shower, how you operate your garden tools, how and where you light your fire or lamp, how you put the pot on the stove, how you climb your roof and dare I say, it how you drive your car. More often than not, we are very non-compliant at home and even less compliant when we drive out of the gate. How many of you issue your gardener with safety clothing to use the chainsaw or the weedeater? Or safety harnesess when he is on the roof risking his life to clean your gutters? I have driven in countries all over the world and I can say with certainty that I have never driven in a country where drivers have such a blatant disregard for the speed limits and rules of the road than South Africans. The culture of safety on our roads is all but non-existent.

So here is the dilemma. These people who are non-complaint at home and behind the wheel of their cars are the very same people who arrive at the workplace and either have to change their behaviour and work safely, or they are the bosses who are expecting the work force to work safely. Safety is not something that begins at the plantation gate, the office door, on Mondays or when the next NOSA or FSC audit is about to happen. For it to become a way of life, it has to be part of our culture in all spheres of life and interaction.

If we take this approach to forest harvesting, we have to begin by stating the obvious; that every single person coming to work has a right to be safe in the workplace. Where workers are exposed to potential dangers that might compromise their safety, then every reasonable action needs to be taken by the employer to mitigate such dangers. Whether it is a simple shin guard or a steel toe capped boot or integrated tractor trailer brakes or a state of the art ROPS, FOPS, OPS and TOPS cab on a purpose built forestry machine, whatever is required should never be compromised.

No compromises
Unfortunately, our industry is often fraught with compromises and a blind eye is often turned when it comes to the cost of taking the high road versus the compromise. It is a fact that when it comes to forest harvesting, we find people working in the most physically strenuous and most dangerous part of our business. It is a given that no matter how safely these people work, we are going to encounter accidents that will lead to injury and death. Even in highly advanced and mechanised industries, serious accidents still happen. Interestingly, the highest prevalence of accidents occurs among service people while mounting and alighting from the very machine they are working on. However, it is also true that wherever people step off the ground into machines, there has been a decrease in injuries and death in forest harvesting, despite the inherent dangers that prevail.

When designing a purpose built harvesting machine, be it a feller buncher (tracked or wheeled), a skidder, harvester, forwarder or loader, the very first design criteria that should never be compromised is safety, regardless of cost. No operator should be exposed to a potential danger because it costs too much to address. An obvious example would be choosing a converted excavator over a purpose built carrier, or an agricultural tractor and trailer versus a purpose built forwarder – no arguments – it is a safety compromise whichever way you look at it. Sadly, all too often someone either needs to be injured or killed for the safety behaviour to change, which is hard to defend from a moral standpoint.

There are a number of aspects in the designing of a safe machine: firstly, the work station or cab, and here one needs to consider both the immediate safety requirements of the cab having to meet the ISO, ROPS, FOPS, OPS and TOPS standards, and the long term consideration of the risk of repetitive stress injuries (RSI) that might occur. The ergonomic aspects of noise levels, visibility and safety during mounting and alighting are all part of the safety package. Isolation switches rendering the machines inoperable when doors are open seems such a small and at times irritating feature to operators and technicians, but a very critical one. The need for sufficient emergency exits in the event of a roll over or fire is not often thought of, and in the case of Tigercat tracked machines, there are three exits with a minimum of two being the requirement.

Prevention of fire
The second safety consideration in design is the prevention and combatting of fire. This part of machine design has largely been driven by the litigation levels that prevail in North America, and has resulted in a positive for machine operators. Fires are often made worse by lazy operators who do not keep to the daily cleaning routines and allow forest matter to build up on their machines, becoming the perfect fuel for a bigger fire. Machine design can address this through the elimination of recesses and cavities that allow the material to accumulate and by making it easier for operators to clean out debris. Tigercat has unique designs, for instance, a single base plate design with removable belly plates on any tracked carrier. This means an operator can simply remove the belly plates and either sweep out or hose debris though these holes, knowing that none of it will be caught up in recesses they cannot see.

Hydraulically operated, fully opening engine covers and full walk through access to the entire machine, help to make visual checks easy. On top of this, the separation of the engine (the fire heat source) from hydraulic components and hoses (hydraulic oil being the fuel for the fire) by using enclosures and firewalls and fire wrapping, all contribute to preventing a fire from occurring. Finally, if you add to this a fully automated (with manual activation) fire suppression system with sensors all around the machine, then you will agree that every reasonable attempt has been made to ensure the safety of the operator who can still access a fire extinguisher from outside of the machine which he can use through strategically placed port holes on the tracked carrier. In the case of the Tigercat skidders and wheeled feller bunchers, one has the use of a pressurised water tank with a hose and spray nozzle to combat fires on the machine or on the ground.
Another aspect of machine safety has to do with stability. When handling single, large trees or multiple small trees, dynamic forces come into play that can wreak havoc with a machine incapable of handling the load with authority. The first danger is the loss of the load out of the head, allowing the tree/s to fall back over the machine causing potential damage and operator risk. The geometry of the felling head, the angle that it is tilted back, the centre of gravity of the load and the hydraulic capability of the accumulation and clamp arms, all play a role in ensuring that this does not happen.

The other danger is the potential for the load to overturn the base carrier, be it wheeled or tracked. A properly designed machine has inherent counter-balance and counter-weights that prevent a roll-over from happening. Exactly where the engine, heavy hydraulic pumps and motors, heavy levelling systems, fuel tanks and hydraulic tanks are located in a machine design plays a massive role in ensuring that the machine stays upright on flat terrain or on a steep slope. And don't forget that a full fuel tank in one location may be a brilliant counterweight to that big tree at the start of a work shift, but a very poor one halfway through the shift when the fuel begins to slop around in the tank, causing potential instability problems of its own.

The reality of most current hydraulic designs is the under load, and with a capable operator multi-functioning (eg. being able to track, move the boom and slew around all at the same time), the actual horse power demand often exceeds the engine horse power, sometimes by more than double. The last thing an operator needs while trying to deal with a two tonne load while on a steep slope is to hear his engine threatening to stall and render his hydraulic controls useless.

To this end, some smart hydraulic engineering using computers and electronics prioritise the flow of hydraulic oil in what is known on Tigercat tracked machines as the anti-stall system that ensures that the oil flow to the critical demands is met and to the less critical demands is reduced, thereby ensuring that the engine does not stall and that the operator's safety is not compromised.

There are numerous other designs that make a machine safer to operate and engineers are striving to come up with new designs or improve existing designs to ensure operator safety every day.

Tigercat remains one of the few purpose built equipment designers and manufacturers of forest harvesting equipment not aligned with a major construction or mining equipment manufacturer. This is important to consider in that our engineers are never forced to compromise their designs because of an overriding need to take advantage of volume produced componentry in the name of cost reduction, especially not safety.

By introducing equipment into our South African forestry industry where the tools and technology are mostly designed and manufactured in countries with a culture of safety, then we can rest assured that we are taking a big step towards embracing a culture of safety ourselves.

Published in August 2011

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