The bane of a chemical safety manager

By Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

Supervisors who don’t put safety first are the bane of safety professionals everywhere. We’ve all heard the expression “bane of my existence.” In common use, it means a person or thing that is a constant irritant or a source of misery.

But “bane” once had a much more dramatic meaning. The Old English “bana” meant literally “slayer” in the sense we now use “killer” or “murderer.” As time went on, the term became “bane”, and it was also used in the more general sense of “cause of death.” By the 14th century, “bane” was used in the specialized sense of “poison.” The term lives on in the names of various poisonous plants such as “henbane” and “wolfbane.”

I say unsafe supervisors are the bane of my existence because they serve up a double whammy – they set a bad example, and they don’t give safety the emphasis it should have in the laboratory or any other workplace.

At a printing plant where I serve as environmental health and safety manager a few mornings a week, it’s a constant battle to get supervisors to wear appropriate eye protection. How can you get employees to take safety seriously when their supervisors don’t do so? At the same plant, several weeks ago, I witnessed an employee pumping an aromatic hydrocarbon solvent mixture from a 55 gallon drum into a steel 5 gallon can with no grounding to prevent a spark from static electricity. I jumped back in horror; a month ago an employee doing the same thing had set off a flash fire and was badly burned. When I recovered enough to put a grounding clip on the can, I asked the employee why he’d failed to ground the container. His response was that he was in a hurry to adjust the color at the press, and when speed was necessary, he wouldn’t normally take the extra time to ground the container. His supervisor was nearby, but also preoccupied with getting the press up and running.

What do we need to convince supervisors (and employees) that carelessness and rushing to get a job done can get someone hurt badly or killed? How we get supervisors, employees, and students to recognize that being “safely productive” is the real objective. Rushing to do a job, failing to properly instruct, and setting a bad example are indeed the bane of our existence.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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