To minimize work-related injuries, many government fleet managers start by maximizing safety awareness.

Tom Adams, fleet operations supervisor for the City of Olympia, Wash., said he heightens safety awareness "through training and daily reminding" when he tours the shop floor with his lead mechanic.

The half-dozen mechanics under Adams' supervision receive monthly safety training on a range of subjects. Posters and signs displayed throughout the maintenance facility remind mechanics to use their personal protective equipment (PPE) and utilize good safety practices.

"We insist on the use of eye and ear protection as a matter of course," Adams said. "Spills are cleaned up as they occur, and every Wednesday the shop receives a thorough cleaning. We work hard to inculcate automatic good safety practices and behaviors."

Yet safety in the workplace isn't just a matter of "common sense," according to the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation, a state government entity tasked with public employee safety.

The Bureau advises fleet maintenance departments to regularly review safety policies and procedures and stresses policies should be "living" documents. They should be updated as operational needs and regulatory requirements change.

An effective safety program demonstrates management commitment and includes employees in the development of work processes, the Bureau noted. Worksite inspections and process analyses should be performed regularly, with an eye to identifying hazards. Prompt corrective action should be taken to cope with any identified hazards.

Checking the Top 10 Common Safety Hazards

With that in mind, the Bureau offers a "Top 10" list of commonly overlooked vehicle garage hazards:

1. Vehicle maintenance lifts, material hoists, floor jacks, and jack stands. Lifts and jacks must be regularly inspected according to manufacturer specifications. Typically, lifts and hoists require annual inspection, and jacks must be inspected at least once every six months to ensure continued safe operation. Employers should provide and require jack stands when employees use floor jacks to lift vehicles.

2. Welding and cutting equipment. Maintain all equipment according to manufacturer requirements and provide sufficient ventilation to remove welding fumes and vapors. Allow only trained employees to operate welding and cutting equipment.

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3. Hazardous chemicals. Obtain a material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each product with hazardous components. Provide appropriate training and personal protective equipment to ensure employees can safely work with chemicals.

4. Electrical equipment. Minimize use of all electrical equipment in vehicle repair areas. If possible, use pneumatic tools for all repair tasks. Many garages are Class I, Division 1, Group D locations that may require special electrical equipment (including hand lamps) to eliminate or control fire and explosion hazards.

5. Adequate ventilation for the vehicle repair area. While many garages provide ventilation for vehicle exhaust, this safety measure generally controls one type of hazard (e.g., carbon monoxide). If major vehicle repairs are completed (e.g., engine overhauls or work on the fuel system), additional ventilation is necessary to remove flammable and/or combustible vapors.

6. Machine guarding. Provide guards on all machines with point of operation hazards (e.g., lathes, mills, drill presses). Ensure all belts, pulleys, chains, sprockets, and other "power transmission" apparatus are completely enclosed with a fixed guard.

7. Bench and floor grinders. Provide upper (tongue) guards and work-rests on all grinders and keep them adjusted as close as possible to the wheel surface. Keep all abrasive wheels dressed and train employees to perform a "ring" test on the wheels before mounting to uncover damage.

8. Flammable and combustible liquids. Limit interior storage of flammable and combustible liquids and provide flammable storage cabinets to reduce risk of fire and explosion. Do not transfer flammable liquids without effective bonding and grounding to dissipate static electricity.

9. Parts washers. Close lids on parts washers when the washer is not in use. Do not disable or remove "fusible links" installed to automatically close lids in case of fire. When possible, use water-based cleaning fluids in parts washers to reduce the risks of fire and ­explosion.

10. Housekeeping. Keep all areas free of accumulated equipment and materials that create hazards of fire, explosion, and tripping. Keep floors as dry as possible to avoid slipping. The most common causes of workplace accidents are slips, trips, and falls.

Consult Safety Experts to Ensure Compliance

Stephen Andrews, fleet maintenance manager for the City of Kettering, Ohio, invited the state Bureau of Workers' Compensation to inspect the City's vehicle maintenance facility. The "courtesy inspection" engages professionally trained safety personnel "to ensure our compliance with the best safety practices," Andrews said. "We are then able to correct any deficiency."

Similarly, the City fire department, as an authority delegated by the State Fire Marshall, conducts inspections, which Andrews said helps maintain compliance with electrical safety and fire safety programs. In addition, the City employs a part-time safety officer whose expertise includes a 30-hour General Industry training/certification.[PAGEBREAK]

Andrews also emphasizes safety measures on the floor with staff. For example, accidents, including minor ones, are discussed at staff meetings or "toolbox chats" to remind mechanics of the importance of working safely and of potential shop hazards.

All chemicals, oils, grease, sprays, and batteries are marked with MSDS labels when received. This step ensures mechanics are aware of potential hazards when using or installing these items.

Establish Certified In-house Safety Committees

Many states have created departments or bureaus charged with enhancing safety in the workplace. Pennsylvania's Department of Labor & Industry (L&I), for example, conducts a program under which public and private employers can establish certified in-house safety committees and earn a break on Workers' Compensation premiums. The program is called Certified Workplace Safety Committee Certification. L&I performs the certification, sending experts in relevant industries to evaluate the work site, said David Smith, a department spokesman.

The certification program is about 12 years old, and more than 8,500 committees cover more than 1.1 million employees in the state, Smith said.

"It has been a very productive mechanism toward developing safety in the workplace, no matter where it is," Smith said. "It could be a loading dock, a fleet facility, or any type of workplace."

Certified committees must have a minimum of two employer and two employee representatives, meet monthly, and operate for at least six full months. Members also must be trained by qualified trainers in safety committee operation, hazard inspection, and accident investigation. Scrupulous recordkeeping is another requirement and includes meeting agendas, attendance lists, and minutes.

The payoff of implementing a certified committee is a 5-percent discount on Workers' Compensation premiums.

Andrews noted while safety programs and policies are valuable, other factors can help, too. For example, he said, many government fleets prefer to hire experienced mechanics, a practice that can realize safety benefits.

Kettering is one such fleet. "We don't have a big training budget," Andrews said. "We can't afford to take a new kid just out of tech school. We need to have people who have most of the experience [to do the job]. I can train them on a piece of equipment, but I don't have a training budget big enough to bring them all the way along. I want to hire someone who's ready to go."

This approach has benefited his maintenance department's safety record. The staff, including five mechanics, has not had an injury resulting in time away from work for two years, Andrews said.

"I don't know that it's any one thing that we do as supervisors or managers here at the shop that helps us," Andrews said. He gave the lion's share of credit to the employees.

"It's the attention mechanics pay to their environment and their job," he said.

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