Don’t let your workplace become a drop zone
Capital Safety’s Romain Crouzit explores the risks, consequences, and methods of prevention concerning dropped tools on Middle East construction sites
One of the greatest risks associated with working at height is that of a worker falling. Work at height does, however, pose other inherent risks, the most significant of which is dropped objects.
Of all industries, construction is the one that offers the greatest level of risk from working at height. However, others – such as the oil and gas, and industrial segments, where workers are required to use gantries or overhead equipment for repair and maintenance activities – carry their own levels or risk.
Hand-in-hand with the need to work at height comes the requirement to use various tools and work equipment which, if dropped from height, can have serious consequences. In fact, there is a hidden multiplier that most do not consider, namely that each person working at height typically carries multiple tools with them – often six or more.
Last year, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recorded an average of 143 incidents of dropped objects per day. OSHA sets out safety regulations that provide a standard for fall protection, dealing with both the human and equipment-related issues involved in protecting workers from fall hazards. These are detailed in ‘Fall Protection in Construction’ (OSHA 3146-05R 2015).
A game of consequences
An object dropped from height can have consequences ranging from minor injuries to fatalities. The most significant consequence, of course, is the trauma caused to individuals and their families. There are also costs to the employer, such as penalties, HSE prosecutions and fines, and loss of reputation. This is aside from the impact on the national economy in terms of working days lost, healthcare provision, welfare benefits, and so on.
Even when dropped tools do no human damage, there can be a financial cost attached to the incident. In a production environment, if tools are dropped from overhead work, the chances of them falling into or hitting machinery are high. This can have major consequences in terms of damaged equipment and loss of production.
Dropped objects in other environments can fall into water, mud, holes, or other difficult-to-reach places. Moreover, their loss can lead to a financial cost to the worker or the employer. And even if dropped tools do make it safely to the ground without causing or incurring damage, one must consider the sheer nuisance factor involved in their retrieval.
Looking at the physics
To comprehend the potential damage a dropped tool can cause, we have to understand the principles of impact force. If dropped from sufficient height, even the most insignificant-seeming item – such as a bolt or a metal tape measure – can have considerable impact force, which can cause injury and even death.
Put simply, the result of being struck by an item of relatively low weight can be significant, and the consequences of a combination of weight and height of fall can range from serious to fatal. Another aspect to consider is that falling objects do not always hit the ground directly below where they have been dropped.
Research has shown that a wrench weighing 3.7kg dropped from 67m and colliding with a bar 6m off the ground has the potential to deflect and travel over 127m away from the point of impact at a speed of 130km/h. To put that distance into perspective, it’s just over the maximum length for a football pitch. Such deflections illustrate the potential limitations of debris netting.
Mitigating the risk
In considering ways of mitigating the risk associated with falling objects, best practice dictates that a hierarchy of control is followed to prevent accident or injury.
Engineering a hazard out altogether is best practice, but this is not always possible. There may, of course, be situations in which tasks must be carried out on a working platform. In such cases, risk can be minimised by lowering the platform to the ground to perform the job before lifting it back into position, avoiding the need to take tools and equipment to height.
Containment is the next step. In terms of preventing objects from falling to the ground when working at height, this can include measures such as the use of kick boards and handrails fixed to scaffolding, platforms, and walkways. By using additional closed-mesh containment, or materials such as plywood or other solid barriers, dropped items can be prevented from falling further. In areas outside walkways, safety mesh or rated barrier netting can prevent the drop of the materials to lower levels. However, all of these methods are in line with the assumption that objects will fall.
Prevention is better than cure
Prevention is the most important step. This not only involves the implementation of measures that prevent tools from falling; it must also address workforce education concerning safe practice when handling tools or materials at height. Practices such as throwing items between workers, rather than ensuring that they are passed safely from hand to hand, should be strictly prohibited. Furthermore, unsafe behaviour should be treated as a disciplinary matter.
Protect your workforce
The final level in the hierarchy of control is protection. For workers on the ground, where overhead work is taking place, personal protective equipment (PPE), such as hard hats, provides a final means to reduce the impact of a dropped object. These are not, however, failsafe, and their effectiveness is limited if the worker is exposed to heavy or sharp items. What’s more, a hard hat can only protect the top of the head.
For anybody working at height, there is a range of PPE designed to prevent falls. This equipment can be divided into two categories: fall protection for people, and fall protection for tools. Products designed to prevent tools from falling include specially designed attachment/connection points such as D-rings, quick-wrap tape, quick spins and quick rings, tethers or lanyards, tool holsters, pouches, and safety buckets.
Putting theory into practice
One of the most important assets in any organisation’s safety armoury is its training programme. Organisations whose personnel need to undertake any form or work at height should establish stringent guidelines for tool management, and ensure these are incorporated into the overall safety culture.
All tools and portable equipment used at height should be secured either to the worker using them – if it safe to do so – or to the work area itself. Manufacturers’ guidelines should be followed to ensure the correct choice of equipment. Lanyard attachment points should not compromise the tools’ effectiveness or hamper the user’s movement. Equipment and tethers should be regularly inspected to ensure that they are fit for purpose, and DIY adaptations of tools or equipment should be prohibited.
Risks relating to personnel from dropped objects are substantial, but protection measures are relatively easy to implement. With the proper knowledge of the consequences of failure, the right safety equipment, and regular reviews to ensure a safety culture is fully embedded, workers can perform their duties in an environment that is safe for them and their co-workers.
The above article was written by Romain Crouzit, Middle East sales manager at Capital Safety, a 3M company.