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Snakes, Hazard Recognition & RPN - What Is a Hazard?

For example, I live in the south where we see the occasional copperhead snake. On a cool fall evening, the snakes will, on occasion, stretch out on the blacktop pavement and soak up the heat. Hazard? Some would say yes, regardless. But if I am not present, then there is no resulting interaction. However, if I am taking a stroll around the neighborhood at dusk and unknowingly step on the stretched out snake, then there is interaction, which could be very unpleasant, possibly for me, certainly for the snake. So how do I mitigate the risk in this example to an acceptable level? Assuming I can't eliminate snakes altogether, there are still several possibilities:

  1. Take strolls in the daytime when visibility is better.
  2. Take a flashlight.
  3. Walk with my border collie who hates snakes.

Any one of these three options would mitigate the risk to manageable levels. But how do I even know to be on the lookout for snakes? What if I had just moved here and was not even aware of the need to look or even think about the possibility? A similar line of thinking exists in our work environments as well. How do we identify and manage hazards? How is work accomplished safely? Lots of questions, now let's look at some answers.

The safe execution of work is no "accident." It requires constant attention and focus on the task at hand. Training, procedures and corporate leadership are certainly necessary to lay the foundation for a safe workforce, but ultimately, attitude and awareness are the most critical components of an injury-free workforce.

Safety performance is often monitored in many ways and most of them are lagging indicators. Near miss reports, injury reports and root cause failure analysis (RCFA) are good examples of lagging indicators. While good, they are lagging and just like the stock market, past performance does not necessarily guarantee future success. Leading indicators, if not already in place, are necessary to make a fundamental shift in the safety culture. One such leading indicator is hazard recognition. Recognition is fundamental and foundational, allowing for risks associated with hazards to be mitigated and managed to acceptable levels. A key focus area is the proactive identification and elimination of hazards by employees that are engaged and empowered.

The classic safety pyramid is used to illustrate the importance of seemingly small and insignificant hazards. Unchecked, and without recognition and mitigation, they can stack up and ultimately lead to serious injuries or even fatalities. Recognition of a hazard is only part of the solution and if not addressed, leaves that hazard for exposure to someone else. To fully capitalize on the benefits of early hazard recognition, one must also take actions to eliminate the hazard. By proactively identifying and eliminating hazards, the potential for more serious and severe injuries is reduced.

An engaged workforce is paramount and foundational to safety. Procedures are important, yes. Rules are necessary, to be sure. But the real key to safety is the individual ownership and responsibility to daily take on the mantle of safety and consciously plan to be safe. Employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace by either eliminating risks or instituting measures to effectively manage the risks. Employees also have a personal responsibility for their own safety at work. The employer provides an environment that promotes and encourages safety. The employee is responsible for being engaged in the work that he or she is doing, namely situational awareness, and focused on safely conducting the task. There are many safety programs that have been used and are being used in industry. They help communicate the expectation for safety and provide tips and tools to become more safety aware. However, in the final analysis, it takes both the employer and the employee, working in unison to not only have a safe work environment, but also to work and be safe. While it may not be possible to totally eliminate all hazards, all accidents are preventable. Zero injuries are not only possible, but achievable.

Zero is Possible!

Hazard recognition and injury prevention also can be tied to situational awareness, or to use another phrase, inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness, a phrase coined by psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock, is an inability to see or recognize something that is within one's field of view while attention is focused on another task.

To illustrate this phenomenon, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, discuss this in their book, The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us.1 In one experiment, a viewer is asked to watch a video of several people passing a basketball. The viewer is asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed from one player to another. During the short video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit enters the scene and stands in the center of the group of players for several seconds, pounds his chest and then exits the scene. Surprisingly, a large percentage, roughly half of the viewers, did not see the gorilla. Their attention was focused on another task and totally missed the "gorilla in the room." Awareness is an important element of hazard recognition, not only on the task at hand, but also being aware of what is going on around you. Expect the unexpected. One way we expand our awareness is the routine review and sharing of safety data from other plants and industry sources. For example, the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) publishes findings and video simulations of actual events, making this an excellent learning tool. Our site's maintenance team also "mixes it up" by taking a supervisor from one area and having them conduct a safety/housekeeping audit in another area. This does two things, it affords the opportunity for the visiting supervisor to see and observe others and it provides the owner with another fresh set of eyes.

Another area that needs to be discussed is our own individual perception of risk and how much risk each of us is willing to take. The acceptance of risk, or the willingness to take risk, is subjective. What is acceptable to me may not be acceptable to you. What may seem too risky for you may be acceptable to someone else. For example, people who invest in aggressive mutual funds are willing to take more risks than those who do not. Rock climbing, or even bungee jumping, is enjoyed by many and is "relatively" safe, but few of us participate in the sport due to the perceived risks. However, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2009 statistics, an average of 93 people died each day in motor vehicle crashes in 2009, an average of one every 16 minutes. Yet we get into our automobiles every day and accept that risk. Due to our varied backgrounds and life experiences, we often perceive risk in varied and different ways. By understanding our risk tolerances better, we can prevent injuries.

When it comes to working in an industrial setting, personal acceptance of risk needs to be normalized and standardized through the use of policies and procedures. This written documentation establishes the minimum expectations for working safely and minimizes the exposure to hazards. Employees are expected to know and observe the safety policies and procedures that are in place. An employee accepting a risk that is outside the scope of what company policies allow is not acceptable, even if the employee is willing to personally accept that risk.

In early 2009, a simple Microsoft® Access database was developed to track hazards. This database tool is based on a variation of the classic reliability centered maintenance (RCM) risk priority index (RPN). RPN is a ranking tool that is the product of severity, occurrence and detection or S x O x D. Tailored for hazard recognition and ranking, each element of the RPN was taken and redefined with focus on safety as shown on the left.

The intent is to document and track the identified hazards. A screen shot of the input screen shown below:

Using the RPN, the risks associated with hazards can be quantified and communicated. I have observed that recognizing the hazard and then following up and communicating to others is essential in the daily quest for a safe workplace. The data from these entries are periodically imported to Microsoft Excel, charted and reviewed with the workforce. While a basic quota of identifying and documenting hazards is required, most employees exceed that. While initially concerned with the quota approach, after three years into the program, interest and participation remains high. The 5,000 plus entries tracked to date show that most of the hazards have relatively small RPN values, which would be consistent with the classic safety pyramid. However, the few that do have higher RPN values are those "nuggets" that truly can drive improvements in the safety culture and risk management. Another key learning tool is feedback on the progress of an identified hazard. Periodic updates on the status are important and show management commitment to the process. To date, about 90 percent of the findings have been eliminated or mitigated. Often, the hazard is eliminated by the individual who identified it, while a few require work orders that are entered and tracked in SAP.

Safety and environmental stewardship is an expectation, a choice and a responsibility. The early identification and elimination of hazards prevent near misses and injuries. Identify, document and correct conditions that can be hazardous. Be proactive, not reactive in all aspects of environment, safety, security and health.

Believe it, Expect it, Live it


1. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Simons & Chabris, 2010.

Stan Moore, CMRP has been involved in the maintenance reliability field for over 25 years. He currently resides in Decatur, Alabama, working for Ascend Performance Materials, LLC, a nylon 6-6 integrated manufacturer. In his current role, Stan is the reliability, maintenance and engineering lead for the Decatur site.

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