Nuts and Bolts No One Can Find

When I was growing up, my dad had about a half dozen Folgers coffee cans full of old nuts, bolts, screws and other random metal things. The collection consisted of the extras from every car project, every trip to the hardware store and every new piece of furniture; he'd even pick up poor little metal orphans off the street. I was at his house recently and noticed one of them in his shed.

Think beyond the checklist to address safety issues with purpose

By Jason Maldonado

Maldonado Jason

I remember helping him on projects when he’d hold up a bolt and say, “Find a nut that fits this.” Then, hours of endless searching would ensue until I found that one perfect nut. I hated those cans.

Seeing them got me thinking about all the nuts we deal with in the safety field. I’m not just talking about all the crazy people that still think Heinrich’s triangle is a real thing either. [Heinrich’s triangle correlates serious accidents with minor accidents and near misses. The theory is that because they are correlated, reducing near misses will cause a decrease in serious accidents.] I’m talking about the parts and pieces of our safety programs.

By talking about things like tools, tasks and strategy people will begin to get the idea that safety isn’t just first and then on to the real work. They will begin to think of the safety elements as steps in the process. It’s a simple shift in thinking, but an important one.

In this post, I want to talk through one of the simplest, most innocuous and seemingly well-intentioned safety elements that nearly every company employs in one way or another: The Job Hazard Analysis (JHA).

It’s one of the safety staples that everyone touts and some even brag about. It is one of the foundational cornerstones of any good safety program—one of the essential nuts and bolts that holds any good machine together.

People call the JHA different things. It could be labeled a “Pre-Task Plan” or “Standard Operating Procedure.” Maybe it’s called a “Task Risk Analysis” where you work. Whatever your organization calls it, it’s there to help workers mitigate risk.

Or is it? If you looked at it from the perspective of the nuts-and-bolts analogy, could you say for sure that you found the right nut and the right bolt from your Folgers can? I tend to make weird connections in my mind, so I realize that probably doesn’t quite make a whole bunch of sense. Let me break it down.

Let’s use the example of a JHA that comes in the form of a “Pre-Job Checklist.” It’s something your employees complete every morning before they get at it. The supervisor dutifully reads down the list, and the crew nods along as he checks YES or NO next to each line. I’m sure you’ve all seen the ritual.

“Any fall hazards?” “Yes.”

“Everyone got their proper PPE?” “Yes.” (What does proper mean anyway? Never mind, I’ll save that for later.)

“Work at height hazards?” “No.” And on it goes until they reach the end of the list and then pass the paper around for everyone to sign. You know, because signing stuff makes you safer. What I just described is an exercise designed to protect the legal interest of the company, not the lives of its workers. On rare occasions, you might find an outstanding supervisor or two who makes a point to go beyond the checklist, but the only thing an activity like that does is cover the company’s backside.

Look for areas where people could easily make mistakes, and then alter the process in a way that will minimize the consequences when that happens because it likely will.

Plenty disagree with me on that, and I welcome the debate. Especially the ones who are quick to note how effective pre-flight checklists are. Here’s a note of caution on that line of thinking: people aren’t airplanes! I can talk for hours about checklists (and I don’t just say that to convince you how interesting of a person I am).

If you’re willing to think beyond the checklist, consider this. What else could that conversation look like that would make it valuable to the worker? I submit that the answer is very—almost childishly—simple. Just discuss the work and how it will be done. It should look like this:

“What is our job today?” Here the crew describes what they have to do. “Are we replacing a pump? Great. How is that done?”

“What do we need to get it done?” The crew lists out and strategizes about what they need. “Do you need parts from the stockroom?” “What size wrenches are required?” “Do we have all of the gaskets and lubricants needed to put it together?”

“Who’s doing what?” Here roles are assigned. For simpler tasks, this may seem dumb since everyone should already know what they’re doing. Maybe. But calling it out will keep people from wandering around without purpose, doing stuff to stay busy, and walking all over each other. “How could someone get hurt during this job?” Here the crew brainstorms. They should talk about areas where extra coordination and communication are needed as well as considerations for other people who may be in the area.

“How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?” Here the crew should discuss the measures they will take to account for the risk they just brainstormed about.

That’s all it takes. If you engage in discussions like the one I just laid out, you begin to engage your workers in the process. Not only that, but you’ve just taken the first steps toward building safety into the process rather than allowing it to be just something extra.

You may not have noticed, but only two of the questions I asked had a safety specific connotation. By talking about things like tools, tasks and strategy people will begin to get the idea that safety isn’t just first and then on to the real work. They will begin to think of the safety elements as steps in the process. It’s a simple shift in thinking, but an important one.

If you give the ideas I talked about so far a fair shake, it’s a good bet that your work planning is off to a good start. I’ll be honest, many organizations or at least certain crews within an organization, really do a pretty good job at it already. But whether you’re just beginning to improve your process or already great at it, there’s a hidden hazard that can derail even the best plan: making sure everyone knows how to put it into action.

You’ve already asked the key questions that have helped you map out the job. So, now your people know what they are doing, how they are supposed to do it, what tools they need to do it and how someone could be injured. To make that stick, there are five actions you need to take.

1. Verify your people know the job: You’ve already laid out what the job is, but it’s crucial that people know how to do it. As with the questions, this may seem like a dumb task, but knowledge shouldn’t be taken for granted. Is anyone on your crew new in their role? Is this a task that hasn’t been done for a long time? Have conditions or configurations changed since the last time it was done? These are the questions that often go unasked and can lead to accidents if not addressed.

2. Remove unnecessary complications: This is probably the least intuitive step of the process. It requires a bit of surveying on-site coupled with some critical reasoning. What I’m driving at is really quite simple though. I’m talking about removing the hose that everyone has stepped over a hundred times, or staging the workers in zones to prevent them from getting in each other’s way. It might even be a simple thing that people don’t even realize is in their way. A good example of that was the Airman who stood outside in the rain for three hours because he had reported to duty five minutes late and arrived to find a shut door. He didn’t try to open it because he assumed it was locked (it wasn’t). My point is that you open all of the shut doors standing in the way of your people completing their tasks.

3. Gather all your parts and tools and lay them out: During the planning, you’ve identified what you need to do the job. In this step, you actually go get it, organize it and make it accessible to the crew. The better you are at doing this, the less likely your people will experience frustration when they can’t find the right screwdriver or they’re missing a crescent wrench.

4. Identify upset conditions: Assuming the plan was good—and it should be if you follow the format—you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. With this step, you should be looking for anything abnormal. For instance, if you planned to work on a section of steam piping that was to be locked out and bled, you may have expected that the valves would seal completely. If you discover once work is underway that one of the valves is leaking because it is damaged and won’t close completely, you need to stop and reassess. You may have to reassess several times. The key is recognizing when you need to do it.

5. Plan for failure; stack the odds in your favor: This step directly corresponds with the brainstorming your crew did when you were planning the work. Since you’ve identified the things that could cause someone to be injured, you now have the opportunity to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. If there is a good likelihood someone could come into contact with chemicals, maybe the right thing to do is to set up an exclusion zone and then provide PPE designed for that specific hazard and an emergency action plan to be used in the event of an exposure.

Look for areas where people could easily make mistakes, and then alter the process in a way that will minimize the consequences when that happens because it likely will. A great, and easy example of this can be found in any gym. If you watch an experienced lifter squat in a squat rack, you’ll see them set the safety bars in a position where they can easily dump the bar and abort the lift if they’re not going to make it. People with less experience just grab the bar and go and subsequently end up on gym fail videos.

If you approach job planning the way I’ve outlined in this article, you’re likely to experience two very profound side effects. First, the risk of personal injury will be reduced significantly. Second, and only slightly less important, your people will be engaged and more productive.

I never would have thought that my dad’s cans of nuts and bolts could have illustrated such an important lesson. The crazy part is that it’s not a safety lesson. Planning and organizing your work is just a good way to conduct business. As you can tell from the picture, my dad learned that lesson. The only downside is that my kids won’t have the joy of rummaging through a coffee can when they help Grandpa with a project.

Jason Maldonado has worked as a safety and health professional for 17 years in a variety of industries. He is the owner and lead contributor of, as well as an accomplished author and speaker. His first book, “A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit,” is available now.