The Crush Zone
555th Engineer Brigade
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
I was sitting in my office, reviewing risk assessments for an upcoming training exercise, when my phone rang. I don’t get a lot of calls, but when I do, it’s usually a safety-related question or bad news. Unfortunately, this was the latter.
I was told one of our companies was traveling to a construction project on main post when the vehicle experienced a blown hydraulic hose, which caused a massive environmental spill. I asked the basic questions like, “Was anyone hurt?” and, “Has the spill been contained?” Fortunately, no one was injured, containment was established and the cleanup process had begun. I also asked if the installation’s environmental response team had been notified and was told they were already onsite.
I quickly finished my reviews and drove to the site, which was only a few miles away. As I approached, I saw a long trail of fluid on the road that continued into a parking lot. When I pulled in, I noticed the leaking vehicle was a High-Mobility Engineer Excavator (HMEE), which is the military version of a backhoe. The HMEE has a front scoop and a rear backhoe arm and is used for various engineer construction and combat missions.
I parked and surveyed the scene. The environmental response team was in the lead and things appeared to be going well. As I walked to the front of the HMEE, I saw the front bucket was in the fully raised position, which was unusual. Normally, the vehicle travels with the bucket in a much lower position. When I got to the front of the HMEE, I saw two workers directly under the bucket in the area where the hydraulic fluid was leaking. I also noted that the hydraulic cylinder safety locks were not in place, which put the workers in danger of being crushed if the bucket were to fall.
I immediately told the workers to get out from under the bucket. They looked at me with surprise but moved out of the way. I pointed out that the safety locks were not in place and how that was a hazard. I also explained that the danger was even greater at that point because the hydraulic system was compromised by the leak.
When I asked why they didn’t put the locks in place, they told me they were in a hurry and just didn’t think about it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in our motor pools and at sites like this one. Whether it’s the raised cab of a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, the bed of a dump truck, the forks on a forklift or many other situations, never put yourself or allow others in the crush zone unless the designed safety mechanisms are in place and secured. Luckily, the workers’ haste and lack of hazard awareness didn’t result in serious injuries or death.
Before conducting any type of maintenance on a vehicle or equipment, take a moment to survey the situation and address all hazards before the work begins. Deliberate or hasty risk management only works if we take the time to do it. In this situation, failing to conduct risk management could have resulted in a catastrophic crushing mishap.