The spotting dilemma

Dave Rebbitt
If there is one thing that safety people can agree on, it is that spotting is dangerous. Beyond that there is an almost Pythonesque sketch akin to “Spot the Looney.” There are generally agreed upon rules such as never stand, or spot, in a place where you can get hit or run over. That about sums it up.

Spotting the spotter
Finding the spotter in most situations is easy. They have their high visibility clothing and those really empowering gauntlets for directing the action. They are usually the newest employee, or the most junior, making them the least experienced. We assume that spotting is easy and everyone should be able to do it. Often this leads to teaming the least experienced employee with an experienced equipment operator or driver.

It is also sometimes easy to spot them because they are usually gesticulating at an equipment operator or driver, who is ignoring them. Operators and drivers can rationalize this because they say they will be responsible for any consequences of the movement of the equipment or truck more experienced. So they use the spotter as an extra mirror or to placate some safety person who insists on the use of spotters.

Fact is, companies often do not train spotters (unless you count a safety meeting). Companies often also drop the ball on the other side of spotting by failing to define to equipment operators or drivers just what the relationship is and who is actually responsible. It is the operator, the spotter, both? This is one of the basic gaps in spotting and spotter programs. After all, how many safety manuals simply state that a spotter must be used?

Where do I stand?
I often share my own spotter nightmare of a brand new employee guiding a heavy truck into position by walking backwards behind and just off to the driver’s side of a reversing vehicle. It is a nightmare scenario but also a common one. There is always debate on where to stand and I have seen processes that require the spotter to be behind and to the rear on the driver/operator side, level with the driver/operator and to the side, and in front.

Now, I am sure there are well thought out arguments for each of those positions. I learned to spot in the army. We were trained on hand signals as part of our operator courses and always had to stand in front of the vehicle because it is actually impossible for someone to back over you that way. There were times when the equipment had to be stopped while I went around back to check on clearance. Armoured combat vehicles and tanks often do not have mirrors, so in a lot of cases the operator was totally reliant on the spotter. The rule was that the spotter was actually “operating” the vehicle and responsible for its movements.

So, in getting your spotting program together it is important to decide on a few things. Is it too dangerous for a spotter? Should they be in a truck with a radio? Where should they stand? How should they be trained? Perhaps most importantly, how is the relationship to be communicated to operators and drivers? We all know that any operator or driver who has lost sight of a spotter must stop, but who tells them that? Do you verify the competency of spotters and the compliance of operators and drivers?

Spotting for heavy equipment
There is spotting for reversing or moving vehicles and then there is spotting for heavy equipment. This is a bit of a different ballgame. It involves cranes, excavators and other heavy equipment that not only moves under its own power but has moving parts than can swing out or over. Guiding an excavator while digging is different from directing a crane to lift and move a load.

The relationship still requires some amount of trust and constant communication. Some things are the same as other scenarios. An experienced operator and the newest employee must team up and somehow communicate and trust each other. The same questions do come up. Are the relationship and responsibilities defined? Who trained the spotter?

Technical solutions
Most of us have a vehicle these days with a backup camera. These have been available as an accessory for commercial trucks for many years. They are appearing on cars because they have become cheap enough. Previously no one would pay $1,000 to get a backup camera on their $20,000 car. That technology has been around for a long time and yet has not made much of an impact in industries where spotters get crushed by the equipment they are guiding.

Many vehicles now also include radar sensors to detect obstructions and proximity to objects. All this is old technology but it has made few inroads into industry in Canada.

On heavy equipment, operators have limited vision. Blind spots are significant and operators know this all too well. Many years ago school busses had to have a device installed on the front to swing out and prevent children from running in front of the bus where the driver could not see them. A mechanical fix that worked at the time and that is still in use. Not very practical for heavy equipment or trucks though.

The use of video cameras and radar sensors sounds expensive but it is actually fairly affordable. A piece of equipment could be economically equipped with four cameras and a monitor along with radar sensors. Blind spots become seen and the operator is warned of approaching people or equipment. Sensors can even have their sensitivity adjusted so that they alarm a few feet away or 50 feet away.

I use this example because I actually know of a large energy company that has outfitted its equipment in this way. Technology is only part of the answer as the real key of spotting is the relationship between the operator/driver and the spotter.

Old school
I have talked about training spotters and even operators to ensure clear communication and clearly understood signals. The traditional approach is to train spotters in some way and it is a skill that we assume even the most junior labourer must have. With so many views on spotting, making sure that new employees understand your company’s spotting process takes a bit of work and reinforcement.

The onus really falls on supervisors to make sure spotting is being done correctly in accordance with company expectations, yet we often leave them out of the loop when it comes to training or even competency verification for the spotting process. So spotting really does take a broad approach.

There is another particularly old school approach that has new legs. Looking back to farming, spotting is something done all the time and it is usually the person operating the equipment that trains the spotter. In a new program, Enbridge Pipelines has done just that. Their new program called “Where do I stand” involves training operators of equipment and requiring them to decide when they need a spotter. If they do, they are supplied training guides and materials to train the spotter they will use. It promotes the important conversation to establish some trust and common ground with a spotter and operator. Operators are rewarded for training spotters and the program helps ensure that untrained spotter are not used by operators. The program is available as an open source document to contractors working with Enbridge Pipelines.

The contractor dilemma
I have talked about spotting for moving equipment and trucks but not those that are operated by contractors. This increases the risks significantly. It may not be possible to train operators of a contract trucking company, for example. In some case drivers may not have a good command of English and so training materials may have to rely heavily on pictograms. After all, spotting relies on two people finding an understanding and common ground. Bear in mind the elevated risk.

A final word
I will say that I do not believe there is any single right way to do spotting. There are some obvious wrong ways. It is a mistake to concentrate your efforts solely on the spotters, or any other stakeholder. My own experience proved that having trained spotters and engaged operators can virtually eliminate the close calls and incidents relating to poor spotting or lack of communication between spotter and operator/driver.

Where large pieces of equipment are moving and they have significant blind spots spotters will be necessary. One of the most effective means of addressing spotting is to plan and minimize reversing.

Spotting has often led to putting our most inexperienced and vulnerable employees in harm’s way. Most brand new employees will not admit they do not know when put asked to be a spotter. As safety professionals we must ask ourselves what we are doing to make sure that these people are protected from needless risk. Giving them a vest and a set of gauntlets is simply not enough.