How to Stop Dropped Tools at Heights

This article is part of Windpower Engineering & Development’s April 2017 issue. A complete digital version of the issue is here.

Dropped objects are neither a recent problem nor exclusive to the wind industry. In 1903, for example, the New York Times published a front-page article on the construction of the East River Bridge, which still stands. The article, however, barely touched on the progress of the bridge, which was big news for the city at the time. Instead, it focused on the number of objects falling off the bridge during construction.

The article mentioned numerous dropped and thrown tools posing threats to boats and people below. It seems that when opposing sides of the bridge were built up close enough to one another, workers on each side were throwing tools back and forth. Certainly, it was a different time with a different safety culture. That was well over 100 years ago. But how much has changed?

According to the Times’ article: “Dozens of placards were posted at various points on the bridge, cautioning.” Cautioning what? Safety, of course. Even back then signs were posted around a job site, much like you see today at construction sites, reminding site personnel to “Be careful” and “Put safety first.” In other words: watch your step and try to avoid dropping stuff.

After a century of experience, we see that building a safety culture has proven easier said than done.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency charged with the enforcement of safety and health legislation, has put together the top reasons for workplace death in the construction industry and has called it the “Fatal Four.”

The Fatal Four includes getting struck by objects (i.e. dropped tools), standing or working between heavy equipment, electrocution, and workplace falls. OSHA maintains that eliminating the Fatal Four would save 600 workers’ lives in America every year.
This means that we still have a number of unnecessary deaths every year from preventable events. It some ways it seems little was learned from the safety mistakes of the East River Bridge, or other construction incidences since then. Granted, accidents happen but how is it that dropped objects are not better prevented some 100-plus years later?

Fatalities aside, guess how many people are simply injured a year from a falling object at a work site? Maybe 1,000? How about 10,000? In 2015, over 42,000 people reported injuries from falling objects at job sites. And note, this number only represents reported injuries and is not an accurate indication of actual incidences. OSHA representatives have maintained the actual number is likely four to five times that because most workers are unlikely to report unless an injury is serious enough.
To break this down, a total of 42,400 injuries from dropped objects equates to 116 per day every day, including holidays and weekends. That is more than two per day per state. This means that today in Georgia, two people are going home because of getting struck by a falling object. Today, in Minnesota, two people are going home, today in Ohio, California, Alabama, Maine, Oregon, Washington, and so on, two people are going home because of a preventable injury. There were two in each one of those states yesterday, and there will be two

About every 12 minutes in the U.S. somebody gets hurt from something falling. It’s a mundane point but one worth repeating because the question becomes how long are you willing to gamble that you won’t be one of the 116 people today that get struck by some object while passing by a job site? The question today is: what are we as an industry going to do about it?
Let’s consider some of the things we have done about it.

Hard Hats
Hardhats were designed for small bumps and minor impacts — not for dropped objects. They were first used in mines and confined spaces where workers might move or stand up too quickly and bump their heads on the surrounding rock-hard tunnel. Fast-forward to today and we’re still using hard hats at construction sites.
Hardhats should remain mandatory at all construction sites. But it should not be the only form of protection against dropped objects.

To ensure additional safety, some companies will place barricades around construction sites or wind turbines to prevent personnel from walking below while work is happening above. But how far out are you typically barricading at a site?

It’s easy to assume objects would fall in a straight line down but that’s rarely the case (which is another reason safety netting fails to work a lot of the time). There is equipment or other tools in between that can cause objects to bounce or unexpectedly deflect off another surface.

Attachment Points
Attachment points make it possible to tether tools in seconds without defacing or structurally modifying tools. Once an attachment point is correctly installed on a tool, a tool lanyard can be used to tie the tool off.

So if barricades are a safety measure, space and distance getting barricaded are an important consideration. Is it twice as far in every direction as workers are climbing up? Likely not. Typically the job site itself is not large enough.

Just imagine the construction of the Freedom Tower in New York. If workers had barricaded out twice as far in every direction as they were climbing up, half of Manhattan would have been shut down for 10 years. This is unrealistic for most job sites.

Lanyards & Tethers
Tethering tools have become one answer to the dropped-object problem. The concern is when this answer becomes a one-size-fits-all response. Five lanyards for five different tools is perhaps one thing, but what if you need 20 or 50 tools up the tower? Then the typical answer is a bungee to tether every tool you may need with you.

However, providing one bungee cord is like handing a wind technician one universal wrench to fix a wind turbine. One size fits all is not an ideal answer to ensure tool safety. But neither is sporting 20 to 50 tethered tools ideal for quick or safe access.

What’s more, two-thirds of the dropped objects are tools not in use. In other words, most of the objects falling are those workers are paying no attention to. It might be a tape measure or screwdriver set off to the side that slides off-tower when a worker steps to the side or tosses down some other tool that accidentally knocks it down.

The point is that the objects that fall are typically not the tools workers are carrying with them or using that fall. It’s the stuff on the side. So what is the best method to ensure those objects are safely contained without a more glorified rope (i.e. lanyards) or extra snaps and attachment points?

One way is to completely change how we think about dropped objects — and that means leading with fall protection.

Fall Protection for Tools
The idea here is that dropped object prevention is an extension of fall protection. Shifting the mindset and treating all objects at height as if they were people at height increases the burden of safety. And technically, fall protection measures safeguard personnel at height and should protect those on the ground, too.

One of the first questions when proper planning and fitting for fall protection asks what kind of harness is required. This is because the type of harness is important and depends on the job, the person wearing it, and how it will attach to keep that person safe.

Attachment points for tools are similar. In fact, think of them as a harness for tools. With this mindset, it is easy to reason that a different size, shape, and type of “harness” for a tool is needed depending on the job and the worker. And whether it is for a quarter-of-an-ounce shackle pin or an 80-pound portable generator, there is a different type of attachment to ensure the object stays safe at height.

While there are plenty of zero-harm safety cultures at workplaces, there, unfortunately, are no set standards for dropped object prevention. Therefore, it is important to stress the significance and enforce implementation requirements. There is little point in purchasing a special attachment for a unique tool if it’s misused, so proper training is essential — for proper implementation and inspection prior to use.

To drive this point home, consider this: if a manufacturer or someone on the job says a tether is rated for 10 pounds, it is important to question what this means. Simply nodding and assuming the rating means the tether is safe for use is not enough because it’s unclear if that 10-pound test was static or dynamically tested.

One thing safety and fall protection does have going for it is that most workers have a strong sense of teamwork. In most cases, site workers are more likely and willing to use equipment that protects the people around them than they are to use gear that protects themselves. So a wind tech might forgo his own hard hat but chances are he’s unwilling to risk a wrench falling out of his hands and potentially harming someone below.

Working at height is dangerous work for every person at the job site. When fall protection becomes greater than individual safety, behaviors begin to change rather quickly and in favor of stronger safety measures. After all, when it becomes your responsibility to ensure that the person next to you goes home safely, it becomes extremely important how you don a fall-protection harness and attach a wrench or spare tape measure.

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