The Real Hazards of Asking People to Help

Ways to reduce the risk of accidents on church work projects.

Churches and schools have ongoing maintenance needs and also engage in a wide range of construction projects. Whether it’s a clean-up day, building new facilities, remodeling old ones, working on a house for Habitat for Humanity, or repairing homes for the poor, church members and school volunteers are active in maintenance and construction. Some custodians and members who work on these projects are expert carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. Many, though, are amateurs who rarely use circular saws, air powered nail guns, or other power equipment. The mix of inexperience, limited supervision, and power equipment poses real hazards. As a result serious accidents regularly occur in maintenance and construction projects.

Churches can prevent many injuries by following a simple, but effective program that provides training for custodians and use of a safety supervisor for clean-up days and construction projects. In addition, churches and schools should require outside contractors to comply with all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements.

Custodial training

Most churches and schools have a paid custodian on staff. Often this person works alone and does many maintenance jobs that include the use of hand tools, power tools, ladders, and hazardous chemicals. Training in the safe use of equipment should be part of the orientation and continuing education program for custodians and maintenance workers.

Assign a safety supervisor

To minimize the risk of accidents during construction and clean-up days, churches and schools should appoint a competent person to serve as the safety supervisor. Every maintenance or construction project should have someone fill this position. The role of the safety supervisor is twofold: first, the supervisor monitors the work site and the workers for hazards, and corrects them when they are found; and second, the supervisor provides training and instruction to workers to minimize accidents and injuries.

The supervisor must have the authority to dictate safety measures. Every worker should understand the role and authority of the safety supervisor. To help communicate that role and authority, each worker should sign-in at the work site and agree to a provision such as the following sample work agreement:

Sample work agreement: To promote a safe work environment, First Church has designated (name of safety supervisor) to be the safety supervisor on this work project. The safety supervisor has full authority to dictate safety measures, and workers must comply with all safety precautions. I agree to abide by all safety rules for this project.

Monitoring the work site

One role of the safety supervisor is to inspect the site and monitor the work for hazards. Custodians or maintenance personnel should also keep their own work areas safe. Attention should be given to the following areas:

The work area—Is the work area clear of materials that can cause workers to trip or fall, or that could fall from above? Pipes or beams that are at work level should be flagged. Any pits or holes should be blocked off. Lighting and ventilation should be adequate. All electrical or environmental hazards should be identified. Jobs should be identified that require personal protective equipment.

Tools—Have you inspected all tools to make sure they are in good repair? Defective tools should be removed and marked “Do Not Use.” Workers should be given clear instructions on the proper use of tools with which they are not familiar. Tools should be used only for the job for which they were designed.

Safe work practices—Workers should not wear clothing or jewelry that could get caught in a machine. No person should work in an unbalanced position that could result in a fall. Workers should be given clear instructions on lifting and handling materials that can result in physical stress and back injuries.

Personal protective equipment—When a construction project or clean-up day is taking place, the safety supervisor should identify jobs that require personal protective equipment. For example, jobs that might produce airborne dust or flying particles, or the handling of hazardous liquids or chemicals should require safety glasses. As you identify all the kinds of work your volunteers will be engaged in, determine the protective equipment they will need to perform their job safely. Custodians and maintenance personnel should wear proper protective clothing for their work including shoes with nonskid soles.

Training and safety instruction for workers—A second role of the safety supervisor is to provide training and instruction to workers to minimize accidents and injuries. Attention should be given to the use of hand tools, power tools, and ladders, all of which play an important role in every church or school construction project.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends five basic rules when using hand and power tools:

  1. Keep tools in good working condition.
  2. Use the right tool for the job.
  3. Examine tools prior to use for damage and if damaged do not use them.
  4. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a tool.
  5. Always use the proper protective equipment.
  6. When followed, these five simple rules can reduce injuries. The church or school, though, is responsible to see that such rules are understood and followed. If an accident should occur, the church or school may be held liable.
  7. Hand tools
  8. Hand tools pose the greatest threat when they are misused, and are not properly maintained. For example, the head of a hammer may fly off if the wooden handle is cracked. Or if the head of a chisel has mushroomed, it might shatter on impact sending fragments into the air. The use of knives, axes, or saw blades can result in injuries when people work close together and the tool is being directed toward another person, or where a person may suddenly walk by. Iron and steel tools can create sparks and ignite flammable gases or volatile liquids. At church or school projects, workers generally bring their own tools. Special emphasis should be placed on not using any damaged tool and not to improvise with tools. Following those rules can reduce hand tool injuries.
  9. Power tools
  10. Power tools are more dangerous than hand tools. The first basic rule is to use protective equipment including goggles and gloves. Many power tools are portable. Slipping and falling while using a power tool can result in serious injuries. Work floors should be kept dry and clean. Workers should not get in positions that cause them to lose their balance. OSHA recommends the following safety precautions concerning the use of power tools:
  11. Never carry a tool by the cord or hose.
  12. Never yank the cord or hose to disconnect it from the receptacle.
  13. Keep cords and hoses away from heat, oil, and sharp edges.
  14. Disconnect tools when not using them, before servicing and cleaning them, and when changing accessories such as blades, bits, and cutters.
  15. Keep all people not involved in the work at a safe distance from the work area.
  16. Secure work with clamps or a vise, freeing both hands to operate the tool.
  17. Avoid accidental starting. Do not hold fingers on the switch button while carrying a plugged-in tool.
  18. Maintain tools with care; keep them sharp and clean for best performance.
  19. Follow instructions in the user manual for lubricating and changing accessories.
  20. Be sure of good footing and maintain good balance when operating power tools.
  21. Wear proper apparel for the task. Loose clothing, ties, or jewelry can become caught in moving parts.
  22. Remove all damaged portable electrical tools from use and tag them: “Do Not Use.”
  23. One of the most common power tools used on construction sites is a circular saw. Circular saws should never be used if they lack a safety guard. An upper guard should cover the entire blade of the saw, and a retractable lower guard should cover the teeth of the saw except where it makes contact with the wood. The lower guard should automatically return to its full covering position once the tool is withdrawn from the material it is cutting. These guards should never be disabled.
  24. Electrical hazards
  25. Electric power tools pose the threat of both burns and shocks. Under some circumstances, even a small amount of electric current can lead to death. Low voltage does not mean low hazard. A current of only 100 milliamperes can lead to muscular contraction and may not allow the victim to free himself or herself from the circuit. The longer the person remains in the electrical circuit, the greater the danger of serious injury. Electric shocks also startle people and can cause them to fall from a ladder or elevated work surface resulting in serious injury.
  26. To prevent shocks and burns, power tools should be properly grounded and insulated. Electric tools should have a three-wire cord and should be plugged into a grounded receptacle. The third prong should never be removed from the plug. Electrical tools should never be used in damp or wet locations unless specifically approved for that use. If the skin is wet, or water is present in the environment increased caution is required.
  27. Ladders
  28. The safety supervisor and custodian should pay particular attention to the use of ladders. The unsafe use of ladders results in many serious injuries. Workers should be able to recognize hazards and follow procedures to minimize them. Training should focus on the following four points:
  29. the nature of hazards in the work area;
  30. the correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, and disassembling the ladders used;
  31. the proper construction, use, placement, and care in handling ladders; and
  32. the maximum intended load-carrying capacities of ladders used.
  33. Common jobs around churches and schools that use ladders include painting, cleaning gutters, washing windows, hanging decorations and lights, changing light bulbs, and doing repairs that require getting on the roof. Pay particular attention to safety for any of these common uses of ladders.
  34. The safety supervisor and custodian should be familiar with the following guidelines from OSHA that can help reduce accidents and injuries associated with the use of ladders:
  35. When ladders are used for access to an upper landing surface, the side rails of the ladder should extend at least 3 feet above the upper landing surface.
  36. Ladders must be maintained free of oil, grease, and other slipping hazards.
  37. Ladders must not be loaded beyond their maximum intended load for which they were built.
  38. Ladders must be used only on stable and level surfaces unless they are secured to prevent accidental movement.
  39. Ladders must not be used on slippery surfaces unless secured or provided with slip-resistant feet to prevent accidental movement.
  40. Ladders placed in areas such as passageways, doorways, or driveways, or where they can be displaced by workplace activities or traffic must be secured to prevent accidental movement or a barricade must be used to keep traffic or activities away from the ladder.
  41. The area around the top and bottom of the ladder must be kept clear.
  42. Ladders must not be moved, shifted, or extended while in use.
  43. Ladders must have nonconductive side rails if they are used where the worker or the ladder could contact exposed energized electrical equipment.
  44. The top or top step of a stepladder must not be used as a step.
  45. Crossbracing on the rear section of stepladders must not be used for climbing unless the ladders are designed and provided with steps for climbing on both front and rear sections.
  46. A competent person should inspect ladders for visible defects on a periodic basis and after any incident that could affect their safe use.
  47. When ascending or descending a ladder, the worker must face the ladder.
  48. Each worker must use at least one hand to grasp the ladder when climbing.
  49. A worker on a ladder must not carry any object or load that could cause him or her to lose balance and fall.
  50. Portable ladders with structural defects—such as broken or missing rungs, cleats, or steps, broken or split rails, corroded components, or other faulty or defective components—must immediately be marked defective, or tagged with “Do Not Use” or similar language and withdrawn from service until repaired.
  51. When using ladders, it is always best to have two people present. One person should stay on the ground and keep the ladder steady. Two or more people, however, should not use a ladder at the same time.
  52. First Aid
  53. First-aid supplies should always be maintained at a construction site and at the church or school office. If a worker is seriously injured move him or her as little as possible. INDIVIDUALS WITH HEAD OR BACK INJURIES SHOULD NOT BE MOVED, unless essential to move them out of immediate danger. Two emergency techniques to move an injured person are the shirt drag (grabbing the shirt around the neck and pulling the person back a few feet in a straight line), and the blanket drag (same as shirt drag but the person is moved by pulling a blanket or carpet or something else they are lying on). Immediately call 911 and do not hang up until you are told to do so by the medical dispatcher.
  54. If a worker receives a cut or a wound and is bleeding, while wearing protective gloves, apply fingertip pressure directly over the wound. If that does not stop the bleeding apply direct pressure to the wound for at least 10 minutes using a gauze pad or some other clean material. If the wound is to a limb, elevate the limb above the heart. For example, if the wound is to a leg, have the person lie down and prop up the leg.
  55. The first aid kit should contain an eyewash in case sawdust or dust particles get in a worker’s eye. Also, always have someone available who can perform CPR.
James F. Cobble, Jr., received his master of divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary, and also has doctoral degrees from both Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Illinois.

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