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Safety Software Lowers Worker Exposure

Contractor's award-winning tool is available free to other employers.

November 26, 2003
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Workers' Compensation, Safety and Workplace Violence, Compensation, Benefits

A software program that recently won a national innovation award was developed by Fluor Hanford Inc. and its workers at the world’s largest environmental cleanup site to help them--and other companies that are adapting its free software--to better protect workers from hazards while also streamlining operations.

    The "Automated Job Hazard Analysis" software was developed by the subsidiary of Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Fluor Corp., one of the world’s largest engineering, procurement and construction contractors.

   The program was designed to protect Fluor Hanford’s 4,300 workers from radiological exposure to the cancer-causing residue of 60 years of plutonium production for national defense efforts at the Hanford, Wash., site, as well as to better coordinate decontamination operations there.

   The 586-square-mile site, which at one time contained nine nuclear reactors and associated processing facilities, was operational from the 1940s with the Manhattan Project until 1989, when the U.S. Department of Energy ceased production there.

   The decontamination and decommissioning project began in the late 1980s. It requires contractors and workers to cope with immense physical challenges, including tons of plutonium in various forms, 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, about 25 million cubic feet of buried or stored solid waste and about 270 billion gallons of contaminated drinking water.

   When Fluor Hanford became the main contractor at the site in 1996, the annual worker injury rate was comparable to the industry average of 5.2, which meant that each year about five out of every 100 workers would sustain some type of injury or illness that was reportable under the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act, according to Dave Jackson, the contractor’s director of occupational safety and health. In addition, those injured or ill workers at the site typically lost between 24 and 30 days of work annually, he said.

   With Fluor Hanford in charge and with the development of the hazard analysis software, Mr. Jackson said, those numbers subsequently dropped to 1.5 injuries per 100 workers and fewer than five days lost. In addition, there has been "a significant drop" in workers compensation costs, although company-specific data are not available due to the pooling of claims from multiple contractors, he said.

   "Safety is one of our core values," Mr. Jackson said. Given the nature of Fluor’s business, "our only resource is our people. That’s why safety is so important."

   The job hazard analysis software uses a "hazard tree" analysis as a more systematic and integrated approach to reduce the number of worker injuries and better integrate information from a variety of sources, including workers, experts, reports of best practices and environmental and safety regulations and standards. It was first implemented in 1998.

   The foundation of the software analysis is a list of up to 156 questions related to the hazards of performing a specific task. It results in a systematic and integrated process to answer those questions and ultimately creates a work plan that incorporates the broad-based knowledge of project participants from top to bottom, as well as the requirements of standards and regulations.

   "No other system provides such a complete union of knowledge, standards and integration with work control," according to a joint statement by Miles Jaeger, the program’s administrator, and Mark Hermanson, a systems analyst.

   The hazard analysis process, in which workers are asked to contribute their opinions both before and after a task is completed, "has really improved morale," said Ron Oak, a spokesman for the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a group of 14 unions working at the site. About 2,000 of Fluor Hanford’s 4,300 workers are affiliated with unions.

   For example, "there is about a 95 percent chance that all the proper personal protective equipment will be identified in the AJHA process," he said. "It has provided greater certainty" that workers will not be exposed to harmful radiation, he said.

   Overall, the software has provided "a cultural shift" in the way the company approaches safety, Mr. Hermanson said.

   Fringe benefits to the process include greater productivity because of fewer "false starts" and work delays due to workers arriving at a job site with inadequate or inappropriate equipment. In addition, opportunities for feedback after workers complete a project further refine best practices for future use.

   "A recent innovation was the development of a portable feature," which lets a planner transfer the hazard analysis questions and related information to a hand-held personal computer, according to the joint statement. "This allows the user to take the AJHA record into the field during the job walk-through and answer the questions as the hazardous conditions are observed," it said. Another new feature is "the ability to digitally capture pictures of the work area and imbed those images with the AJHA record," it said. When the information is subsequently uploaded, workers and subject matter experts can view both text and photos, which allows for better planning.

   The software also has garnered widespread recognition for the company.

   Last month, Messrs. Jaeger and Hermanson won a national Innovation Award from the Voluntary Protection Programs Participants’ Assn.

   The national Voluntary Protection Programs, which are administered by OSHA and the U.S. Department of Energy, are a cooperative effort among labor, management and government. To be eligible for VPP status, companies must have safety and health programs that exceed OSHA’s standards. Currently, more than 1,000 U.S. worksites are VPP participants and more than 750,000 U.S. workers are directly affected by the program, according to a VPPPA statement.

   In addition, Fluor Hanford’s safety measures have been heralded as "a national model of excellence" by Washington Gov. Gary Locke.

   The U.S. Department of Energy also acknowledged the software’s key role. "The AJHA provides a powerful and valuable tool to ensure integrated organizational functions are used to identify and control hazards, as well as providing streamlined logistical capabilities regarding work package development, worker involvement, approvals and feedback," it said in a report.

   In addition, the software "can be adapted to just about any type of business application where you might experience industrial safety and industrial hygiene issues," Mr. Hermanson said.

   Although Fluor and the U.S. Department of Energy have copyrighted the software, it is available free of charge through a licensing agreement. A wide variety of entities, ranging from other nuclear cleanup contractors to a school district, have implemented or expressed interest in the program.

   For more information about the software, send e-mail toMr. Jaeger or toMr. Hermanson.

  For information about the VPPPA program click here.

Source: Business Insurance magazine.

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