No Room for Error

When working with heavy equipment, the margin for error is small and mistakes can result in serious injuries and sometimes fatalities and/or equipment damage. Damage to heavy equipment is expensive, and the equipment is capable of doing a lot of damage to materials and property, all of which can be very costly.

To prevent injuries and damage involving excavators, backhoes, front-end loaders and other heavy equipment, contractors must ensure that operators are properly trained and qualified to operate their equipment. Not only is it good business practice, but it is also an OSHA regulation — (1926.20(b)(4).

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When an equipment operator gets behind the controls of heavy equipment, he or she is responsible for the safe operation of expensive equipment and the safety of co-workers. However, contractors are held responsible for the costs associated with injuries or damages, as well as any penalties for non-compliance with OSHA regulations. Therefore, it would be a good investment to train all operators to ensure they know the safety procedures and applicable OSHA regulations associated with the equipment they operate.

Equipment operators must know and understand the working limits of all the equipment they run and be able to recognize the hazards that cause injuries or equipment damages. They must understand the manufacturer’s safety rules and OSHA regulations (Subparts N and O) applicable to the type of equipment they are operating. They must also be physically, emotionally and mentally fit when operating heavy equipment.

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Training does not have to be formal or conducted at a training center. Some companies hold annual or semi-annual training meetings specifically for all operators and supervisors to discuss safety issues, procedures, regulations, new equipment, etc. The training instructor(s) can be the safety director, experienced operators and/or manufacturer’s or supplier’s representatives as long as the participants are provided with applicable and accurate information. Training may also be held to train and qualify operators on new equipment the company has purchased or leased.

Although safety training requirements vary with the type, make and model of equipment, every operator should know the following:

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  • Only authorized and qualified employees are permitted to operate heavy equipment.
  • Operators should only run equipment they have been checked-out and cleared on.
  • Operators are required to wear seatbelts on most types of heavy equipment.
  • Bi-directional heavy equipment must be equipped with horns in operating condition.
  • Motor vehicles and equipment with obstructed rear views must be equipped with back-up alarms, rear-view cameras or have someone assigned to safely direct backing operations.
  • Equipment with broken or cracked windshields/glass must not be operated until the glass is replaced or removed.
  • Blades, buckets, dump bodies and similar devices must be fully lowered when equipment is parked or during repairs.
  • A minimum of 10-ft clearance must be maintained between any part of the equipment and energized power lines.
  • Riders must never be permitted to ride on or in any part of the equipment unless the equipment is set up for riders.
  • Equipment must be inspected before and during use to ensure safe operations.

In addition every operator should know:

  • Equipment operator’s responsibility;
  • Inspection and routine maintenance requirements for the specific equipment;
  • Basic requirements for transporting the machine to and from the jobsite;
  • Pre-startup requirements;
  • Setup requirements;
  • Operational requirements, working range, swing radius, lifting capacity and machine limitations;
  • Emergency procedures;
  • Appropriate hand signals;
  • Specific jobsite conditions, potential hazards and limitations;
  • Potential equipment hazards, pinch points and blind spots;
  • Load limits and how to read the load-limit charts;
  • Rigging requirements specific to the type of machine;
  • How to safely shut down, park and secure the machine;
  • Applicable OSHA regulations and manufacturer’s safety procedures;
  • And other safety precautions specific to the machine they run and/or the jobsite they’re working on or plan to be working on.

If you were to give your operators a test based on the previous items, how many of them would pass the test? Don’t assume that they would all know the answers. It never hurts to hold an operator training or refresher training session. Many good information and training resources are available from OSHA and online. The equipment operator’s manual is one of the best safety training resources, and every operator should have access to the manual for the equipment they operate.

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Project managers and foremen responsible for equipment operations should also know about applicable OSHA standards and heavy equipment safety. Although they are not generally expected to know how to operate the equipment they supervise, they should be knowledgeable about the proper setup, limitations and safe use of the equipment. They should also verify that equipment has been inspected prior to giving instructions to proceed with the work.

Nothing is more important to safe equipment operation than well-trained, knowledgeable operators. Failure to know how to safely operate their assigned equipment is the contractor’s responsibility. Therefore all operators must be safety conscious, knowledgeable, responsible and reliable because there is no room for error.

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George Kennedy is NUCA Vice President of Safety.