Safety in the Shop: Improving Pit Safety

Today’s workplace is a far cry from the dangerous factories and sweatshops where manufacturing began. Yet, accidents still happen. The difference is today there are infinitely more systems in place to protect employees from workplace accidents. OSHA regulations, laws dictating workplace conditions, the ever-rising minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek are some of the results of the workers revolution. The modern oil and lube shop is largely, a safe place to work but dangers still remain. Some of these include hazardous materials workers may come into contact with, burns from hot car parts, eye and head injuries and falls into the service pits.

This last danger is unique to oil and lube shops and is one of the most common sources of injury among their employees. The responsibility for pit safety begins at the top. It can be easy to get complacent about safety in around shop, especially if it’s been a long time since the last mishap but all it takes is one incident to cause serious harm and jeopardize the business’ financial future. With laws and regulations to follow, there’s more riding on shop safety than just safety. It’s important to remember, even though OSHA General Industry Code 1910 recommends preventative measures to ensure a safe working environment, this is just a baseline standard to build off of. OSHA states in the general duty clause, every workplace should be, “free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” In other words, the government wants you to use common sense. Aside from the obvious irony this can potentially leave lube shops open to prosecution for accidents even if they’re adhering to all applicable regulations.

The first line of defense against workplace accidents is employee training. Every lube shop manager or owner should make sure there is a homegrown, training regime specific to their particular facility. This training should include the locations of all fire extinguishers and first aid kits, the identification of potential hazards and an established list of best practices for potentially hazardous work duties. It’s also a good idea to run through a variety of accident scenarios so everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency. It’s important this workplace safety training isn’t a one-time thing but a regular occurrence in order to keep the information fresh in the employees’ minds. In addition to training sessions with the entire crew, all new employees should be given a one-on-one safety briefing as part of their orientation.

As mentioned, one of the hazards unique to oil and lube shops are the open service pits. These can be relatively easy for an employee to fall into especially since they spend a lot of time in their immediate vicinity. Oil spills and an assortment of objects to trip over only exacerbate the problem. Fortunately, once a worker is actually in the pit there’s not much that can harm them other than objects or fluids falling from a car and/or poor ventilation as long as there’s always an avenue of escape.

So, what are some of the most prevalent mistakes operators make when it comes to pit safety and what are the best solutions every shop should implement? Bill Greely, marketing manager for BayNets chimed in.

“In regard to service pit safety, loose board covers, bent and missing metal covers, nets with large holes, yellow tape, cones and caution signs may not be enough to be compliant or safe. OSHA is happy when a pit is either fenced off or completely, and effectively, covered when not in use. This aspect of basic shop safety cannot be stressed enough,” Greely said.

 The necessity of preventing workers from falling into a service pit has spawned a variety of solutions. Some are probably overkill while others may not be up to the task. Many shops use a metal or fiberglass grate systems to close off the pit openings when not in use. However, there are some important drawbacks to consider before installing this type of pit cover. Most grates are made up of heavy sections that can be a pain to install and remove. Tracked systems make it easier to open and close the pit but are prone to jamming and require regular maintenance. Both sectioned and tracked, hard covers tend to be expensive too.

The alternative to using grates to cover the pit openings is to install some sort of net or web. These are generally more affordable than grates and can be easier to maintain and install, albeit at the cost of not providing a suitable walking surface when they’re closed. However, not all nets are created equal. Any covering over a floor opening should be able to support at least twice the expected load since a falling object can deliver much more impact than its weight alone.

“The most simple, effective and economical solution is a safety-net-system that easily slides along a pair of cables installed on opposite sides of the pit. The strength is in the framework of cable and anchors. The net must function to resist wear and tear including oils and solvents and must be able to withstand the impact of a falling person with minimal deflection,”  Greely said.

 Unfortunately, many solutions on the market are nothing more than glorified fishnets offering limited ability to prevent a falling man from hitting the floor of the pit. Furthermore, many net systems can rival the grates in their complexity and maintenance requirements.

In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for oil and lube shops. What works great for one may not work for another. Of course, even the best floor hole cover won’t do a thing if it’s left open all the time. Perhaps the toughest part of pit safety is maintaining the discipline to always close the grate, net or web every time the pit isn’t being used. Only a work culture and atmosphere that places a high value on safety will instill discipline in the shop’s crew. There’s simply no substitute for frequent and detailed safety training for all shop employees. 

For more information, contact your local workman’s comp. insurance agent. Normally, they’re very helpful with OSHA requirements and any other health and safety concerns you may have.