KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Building is a dangerous business, no matter where it occurs. Safety and occupational health specialists work hard to prevent accidents like those reported world-wide so far this year.
In the U.K., a construction worker plummeted off scaffolding 50 feet to the ground. In the U.S. a boom on a poorly-maintained crane dropped and crushed a worker. Geronimo Gomez, a safety and occupational health specialist with the USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District is part of a team dedicated to preventing such events here.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building water, power, and transportation projects as well as Afghan National Security Forces facilities to enable security and stability in the nation. Although the district contracts with competent, experienced, Afghan-owned and operated as well as American firms, construction remains one of the most dangerous industries in the world, explains Gomez. Safety is the district’s top priority, but sometimes accidents, incidents or near misses happen, Gomez said.
He urges the best defense against near misses or worse is prevention through education, training and awareness. When an accident, incident, or near miss occurs at a district job site, Gomez investigates; identifying all the possible factors in his pursuit to determine the cause in order to prevent future occurrences.
“We have to ask who, what, when, where, why, and how did the event occur,” says Gomez of investigations. “It is necessary to identify factors such as work pace and work load, whether or not machines and equipment have received proper maintenance, whether or not personal protective equipment was used, physical working conditions such as temperature, and how well-informed workers are about hazards,” Gomez says.
During investigations, Gomez follows a rigorous checklist, interviews relevant parties to the event including witnesses, reviews pictures and footage, visits the event site, takes measurements and carefully evaluates all of the data.
“The purpose of my investigation is not for punitive measures, it’s to determine the root cause of the event for the purposes of eliminating hazards and preventing recurrence,” Gomez said.
Safety and occupational health standards in developing nations lag behind those in developed ones according to the United Nations International Labour Organization.
“Striving to impart a culture of safety is really important if we want to reduce and eliminate accidents here,” explained Gomez, who for 25 years worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has taught workplace safety courses at the University of Texas in Arlington.
Although firms contracted by the district to build critical infrastructure must have safety and occupational health specialists on job sites daily, Gomez inspects job sites, the related environment and equipment at sites weekly. He observes labor practices to promote adherence to safety regulations too. He educates workers about the benefits of maintaining a good safety and occupational health program. Benefits include reduced absenteeism due to illness or injury, fewer lost days, less damage to property, overall costs savings and most importantly, fewer fatalities. When workplace-related unfortunate events occur, Gomez investigates and recommends preventive actions to curb and eliminate future accidents, incidents or near misses.
“One loss of life is one too many, especially when the loss is preventable,” Gomez said. “If we can determine root causes, recognize and eliminate hazards and promote a culture of prevention and awareness, we can save lives.”