This story is included in the inaugural 2021 edition of Safety Partners’ publication, “Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Laboratory Research.”
When you’re working long hours day in and day out, it’s easy to become a little lax or forgetful involving safety protocols. At my old job in a manufacturing facility, a simple mistake would’ve cost an employee her vision had the company not changed its safety culture in response to a tragedy.
Lockout/tagout procedures are critical to preventing exposure to dangerous materials or electricity while performing routine maintenance and repairs.
Sophie was a maintenance worker in our facility who was working on a line that contained sodium hydroxide. I can’t quite remember the strength, but regardless it was not something you would want on your body. Lockout/tagout procedures are critical to preventing exposure to dangerous materials or electricity while performing routine maintenance and repairs. At some point upstream of Sophie, an employee had neglected to lock out/tag out a valve. Sophie, believing the line was safe, began her work and was promptly doused in the sodium hydroxide solution.
Fortunately, she was wearing safety goggles, which protected her eyes and allowed her to make her way to the safety shower hastily. Because she was able to wash the sodium hydroxide off so quickly, she didn’t suffer any long-term injuries. Had she been wearing regular safety glasses; she may not have gotten off scot-free.
You see, recently our company had put a policy in place mandating the use of safety goggles instead of safety glasses. They did this by necessity. Our commercial manufacturing facility had a very spotty record for safety, with several incidents of splashes and exposures occurring in the recent past. In one such incident, a worker named Jean was similarly sprayed with sodium hydroxide solution.
He was wearing safety glasses, as required by the company, but the solution hit with such volume and force that it ran down his face and got into his eyes. Unable to see and hobbled by excruciating pain, he didn’t make it to the safety shower in time and had to be airlifted to a hospital specializing in chemical burns. The concentration of the sodium hydroxide was so high that this single splash took his eyesight permanently.
The changes the company made to our PPE requirements saved Sophie’s sight, and the clearly identified and unblocked safety shower prevented permanent skin damage or worse. Jean would not have been permanently disabled had the company made substantive changes before the incident, and it’s disheartening that it took a debilitating injury to move the site to action. Still, this goes to show that policy changes matter.
More directly, however, this emphasizes just how vital lockout/tagout procedures are. In this facility, a pipe like that one would often run across several rooms and multiple floors. When you’re dealing with hazardous chemicals, extra care must be taken with lockout/tagout procedures. As this story highlights, failure to do so can and did lead to a potentially hazardous incident or much, much worse.
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