By K C Pawling, Road Safety and Loss Prevention Specialist

I think we have all heard some version of the phrase “our choices have consequences.” I know my wife and I often said this to our two boys while they were growing up. We let them make the choice they wanted after presenting available options, if their safety was not going to be affected. Sometimes it did hurt a little when they made the choice that had a less favorable outcome, but nonetheless they made their choice.

When we look at workers’ comp claims that come into the NIRMA office, we often find that employee injuries are the result of less-than-ideal choices. I want to make it clear that I am not scolding or trying to belittle anyone. I’ve made more than my share of poor choices, and occasionally I still do. But looking at claims data tells us that the top five claim categories in the last 5 years are as follows: 1) Strain or injured by, 2) Fall or slip, 3) Motor vehicles, 4) Cut, punctured, or scraped, and 5) Struck or injured by.

Of these categories, one road department task can fall into four of these top five categories: motor grader blades. It seems that every operator has their own way of carrying out this task. Many of you choose the safer way of using a fabricated device to aid in lifting, placing, or holding the blade in place while changing the blade. Others choose to use the buddy system to change blades, employing a co-worker to help manage the blade while attaching it to the moldboard. And then there are those employees that choose to do it themselves. The last choice, lifting the entire 100+ lb. blade alone and unassisted, can have the unintended consequence of injury. It really does not matter how we position the moldboard, whether it is up or down, kicked out to the side or not. Just getting up and down off the creeper has the potential for injury, let alone handling a 100+ lb. blade while laying down.

This topic really came to light as I have been having many conversations with NIRMA member employees lately about maintaining proper road profile. I’m often asked, “how do we keep our blades straight for the proper road profile?” My response is always, “rotate your blades.” This is when operators will share that they don’t like to rotate blades because it is hard to handle long blades, and there is not always someone around to help. I always suggest using shorter segments instead of the longer blades. Some people then say they are not aware that shorter blades are available.

For a 16-foot moldboard you could use four segments that are 4 feet long rather than the two 8-foot segments. For the typical county moldboard lengths which are usually 14 or 16 feet, you can get blade lengths 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 feet long. The 4-foot segments are going to be half the weight of the 8-foot. For example, a 6-inch tall 4-foot segment is 34 lbs., and an 8-inch tall 4-foot segment is 67 lbs. per blade while the 8-foot blades are twice this length.

I still encourage everyone to use assistive devices or the buddy system to change the blades, but the risk of injury is lowered by using shorter, lighter blades. There are inherent risks in changing blades that we cannot avoid, but we can certainly lower the

risk of injuries if we put good safety practices in place. Consider using different size blades, the use of an assistive device for safer handling, wear safety footwear, and make sure you have good quality cut-resistant gloves when changing blades.

For those of you wondering, I did check with a supplier of blades as to what sizes and prices were available for county purchase. The response I received was extremely encouraging. I won’t print the price quote I received because there are so many price discounts and different programs available to your counties, but the price difference per foot was less than a dollar from the longest blade compared to the shortest.

I would also mention that there are different blade systems available that feature replaceable bits or teeth segments, further lowering the risk of injury. These systems are more expensive initially, but there are county road departments reporting in the long term that they are lowering the cost of operation. If you factor in the cost of injuries, it could be considerably cheaper in the long term.

In closing, I want to say that less safe choices can cost us much more than we expect. Lost time injuries cause loss of production. More importantly, injuries can cost quality of life and affect our family’s quality of life if they are serious enough. I challenge everyone to consider the risks–all the risks–when working. Make safe choices. Consider using different blade configurations.

If you need help with your safety training or program, do not hesitate to contact us for help. I can be reached at kcpawling@nirma.info. I look forward to hearing from you!