Throwback Thursday: Can’t Put My Finger On It

Originally appeared in Oil Driller (Spring 2010)

Finding the elusive solution to pinch point hazards

By Michelle Morra-Carlisle

It’s often the little things – small tools or a split-second slip of a big tool – that cause the most soaring injury statistics. Oil and gas has captured international attention for its organized and committed approach to safety. Especially in Canada, we have achieved industry-wide safety awareness and commitment, learned to prevent explosions and, more and more, stay safe from sour gas leaks. Yet according to Workers’ Compensation Boards in Western Canada, injury statistics from pinch points have remained constant.

When Doug Gibson trains new rig workers on the importance of knowing where to place and not place their hands, he speaks from experience.

“I spent 15 years on a rig and I’ve got all my fingers and toes,” he says, “but they’ve all been black and blue at some point because of pinch points.” Like many rig workers he has narrowly escaped serious injury when his wrench slipped, or as he pried something with a crowbar or reached for a pipe.

Pinch points are a hazard in any industry that involves hands-on work. A pinch point can be any part of a machine where a worker, or a worker’s body part, can get caught. Or it can be the space between two objects where, again, there is risk of being pinched or crushed. Like most everything else in the oil and gas industry, the hazard is magnified because the work is fastpaced and the equipment is fast-moving, heavy and large-scale.

For example, a pipe wrench can pinch a finger. But when you’re working with rig tongs that are essentially a 500-lb pipe wrench, a pinch can become a crush or amputation.

What Goes Wrong

Machine guarding helps keep workers out of the danger zone. Personal protective equipment can lessen the severity of an injury. Many companies have these measures in place and make workers aware of pinch point hazards. They raise the issue at every safety meeting, colour code the pinch points on equipment, and post signage all over their rigs. Still, the hazard of being pinched or crushed remains at the top of every safety manager’s list of challenges.

Just as equipment is part of the equation, so are awareness and behaviour. For new workers, the problem is often a lack of experience; they might not realize when they are standing or placing their hand in a compromised position. Safety training at ENFORM happens on a fully operational drilling rig on the premises, but only job experience paints an accurate picture of how difficult it can be to avoid pinch points on pipe spinners, between pipes, and anywhere else on the job.

“We don’t focus on speed, because the purpose is to train,” says Gibson. “But when the men get out in the field they will be working at a faster pace.” The experience they gain can sometimes get in the way of safety. “Those that know about the hazards can become complacent if they have never been hurt all those other times they used the equipment in a certain way,” says Mike Doyle, HSE Coordinator at Silverstar Well Servicing Ltd. “Then the next time they grab it, they get hurt.”

Pinch points became a focus for Doyle in the past year, prompted by two sad occurrences. He stood by and did his best to support a co-worker while a doctor amputated the 20-year-old’s fingers as the result of a pinch point injury. And that same year, Doyle received word that a cousin of his – the third in two years – was about to undergo a full mastectomy because of breast cancer.

Pinch points and cancer. He had never associated the two but got to thinking of a way to address both dangers at once. One commonality was the number 104.

“An average of 104 people a day will claim a hand injury in Alberta,” Doyle says. “And an average of 104 Canadian women will die of breast cancer every week.”

When you’re working with rig tongs that are essentially a 500-lb pipe wrench, a pinch can become a crush or amputation

He researched the topic and also discovered that 180 men, each year, are diagnosed with breast cancer. Men he works with are all familiar with both cancer and the danger of pinch points. Both dangers had hit close to home, and everyone could relate.

The result is the Pink Pinch Point Project, launched in November, 2009 in partnership with Suncor InSitu Drilling & Completion Energy Inc. Doyle’s safety counterpart Marty Mudryk at Suncor had heard of a company that gave out pink gloves to people who worked unsafely. Using the same idea, the Pink Pinch Point Project has raised awareness on a grand scale. The way it works is that anyone is expected to intervene when they spot a co-worker doing something that could result in a hand injury. Once caught, the guilty party must wear pink gloves and a pink hard hat (actually the gloves are black, but covered with an image of every bone in the hand, in bright pink, as a reminder of the anatomy at stake).

It doesn’t stop there. Every close call results in a job observation bulletin that includes a description of the observed behaviour, plus a photo of the worker in the volatile position, donning the pink gloves and pink hard hat. Each job observation ends up in the new employee orientation package as an excellent, visual training aid. And for each one created, Suncor and Silverstar will each donate $1 to the Breast Cancer Foundation. They plan to present a cheque to the foundation in October during Cancer Awareness week of this year.

It’s still early to tell what direct impact the program has had on the hand injury rate, but buy-in is thriving so far.

“The guys say the gloves are cool,” Doyle says, “and the pink hard hat, well, it’s for a good cause.” And a little light humour, he adds, seems to make people more at ease with correcting a co-worker’s behaviour. The idea appeals to both workers and management. Since the industrial press has picked up on the new program, Doyle has received several phone calls from other interested safety managers in the sector. What’s happening at Silverstar reflects something the industry has long known about safety on the job: that communication and a company-wide culture of safety can make a difference.

Addressing such a pervasive problem needs to be a team effort, which is key to the pinch point program at Precision Drilling. Senior safety manager Dan Lundstrom says that in an environment where people do potentially hazardous work in such close proximity to one another, everyone must be on-board. Workers need to not only protect themselves but the next guy.

“Communication is one of the barriers we focus on,” says Lundstrom. “We look at the hierarchy of our supervisors and work at ways we can talk to our people about what needs to be done.”

There should be safety in numbers. Yet Lundstrom has found that workers are not focused on watching out for each other’s safety. “Often there are multiple people involved in most operations, yet people fail to engage and talk to that worker and say, ‘hey, you’re not doing this safely.’”

It has been almost two years since Precision launched a hand awareness campaign that included awareness bulletins, job observations, and a close examination of how managers and supervisors were talking to and coaching employees. Another key component is the company’s glove program. Lundstrom says wearing protective gloves has not always been common practice, partly because until recently the technology did not exist to make gloves that could withstand the conditions of oil drilling or well servicing. Today’s durable materials like Kevlar, he says, resist wear and tear, repel moisture and drilling fluids and help reduce the severity of an injury.

His safety department developed a database that revealed which specific operations were experiencing the greatest number of hand and finger injuries. They created a profile, shared the information with employees, and have carried on the momentum with ongoing safety bulletins and presentations.

The hazard of being pinched or crushed remains at the top of every safety manager’s list of challenges

“Recordable injuries have dropped by almost 66 percent in one year,” Lundstrom says, “and our WCB costs related to hand injuries have dropped almost 70 percent.”

Word has spread to the point where even Precision’s customers are demanding that contractors they hire wear protective gloves. Lundstrom acknowledges, though, that PPE is helpful as extra protection but not the main focus of a safety program. Awareness and communication are.

“Everybody’s got an excuse about how an injury occurred,” he says. “But when you start talking to them, they gradually start to understand that we all have a chance to contribute. We all need to follow the procedures communicated, manage the risk, use the required guarding and wear the PPE.”

And the more workers are thinking about pinch points, the more they can recognize and stop hazardous situations.

“It’s saying, ‘Keep your hands in the handles’ or ‘Where are your gloves?’ or ‘You should be standing here, not there,’” Lundstrom says. “It is literally that simple.”