Working high above the waters, workers must be prepared for the worst
It was a chilly morning in November 2000 when Jamie Barker
and nine co-workers began a routine job of painting the Ambassador Bridge, the
critical passageway that links Detroit with Windsor, Ontario.
After just a couple of hours on the job, something went
terribly wrong. The suspended scaffolding gave way. Barker and two colleagues
were thrust into the frigid waters of the Detroit River, while seven others
were left dangling beneath the bridge, attached to a horizontal lifeline. Of
the seven attached, three were able get a hold of a structure and climb back up
to safety. The remaining four waited for over an hour for local fire and rescue
to pull them back up. Of the three who weren't attached, two were rescued
from the river. Barker, a father of six, wasn't so lucky. His body
wasn't recovered until five months later. Nearly two years after the
horrific accident, negligence charges have been filed against two engineers in
the case for violating Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act.
This is a worst-case scenario, but one that bears
revisiting. All 10 of the workers were wearing full-body harnesses. Barker and
the other two who plunged into the river, however, weren't connected to
lifelines as were the other seven.
The story underscores the false sense of security workers
sometimes have simply because they've got the required equipment. It also
illustrates the real need for a rescue plan any time a worker is exposed to the
risk of a fall. The equipment and gear must be used in the right manner.
Harnesses, lanyards, lifelines and all the associated components of a fall
arrest system need to be properly worn and correctly attached in order to
effectively save a life, as they're designed to do. That said, there
might still be times when a worker experiences a fall. What happens then?
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A simple save
When a worker falls, it's rarely because of equipment
failure. Taking slightly too large a step or reaching just a bit too far and
losing one's balance can cause a worker to fall. Sneezing or coughing may
cause a worker to lose his grip and slip. All too often, poor housekeeping is
to blame. A worker accidentally trips on a piece of debris or equipment on the
surface where he's trying to stand. When the fall happens workers can
often perform a self-rescue by simply climbing back onto the structure.
When the worker is unable to reach an adjacent structure,
the first thing to do is notify the right people. If a rescue team is on-site,
they should be called out. If it's a peer rescue situation, workers need to
be notified to gather the appropriate equipment and begin the rescue. In most
cases, it's also a good idea to call 911 even if the local fire
department won't be called upon for the actual rescue. Whenever a worker
falls, there is the potential for trauma or other medical issues and the worker
needs to be examined by trained medical personnel.
Rescue efforts should be kept as simple as possible. If the
fallen worker isn't panicked or incapacitated, the rescue may require
only feeding some rope to allow the worker to swing back over to the structure
and, essentially, "rescue" himself. With someone who is panicked or
thrashing around, the best thing to do is try to calm them down. The rescuer
can then talk the fallen worker through the next steps of rescue or, in some
instances, assist him with a self-rescue.
If, in fact, a rescuer needs to reach the fallen worker,
specialized equipment is needed such as, for example, a Rollgliss Rescue System, manufactured by DBI/SALA. This system is a simple rescue device
that provides quick and easy raising and lowering of both the individual and
the rescuer. It will allow the rescuer to raise or lower himself to the fallen
worker and then attach the worker to the rescue device and a new fall arrest
system. Once the fallen worker is properly connected and protected, they can be
raised up enough to take the pressure off the deployed fall arrest system,
allowing the rescuer to undo the snaphook and lower both of them safely to the
After the fallen worker has been safely retrieved and
lowered to the ground, he should be checked out medically. In addition, an
incident investigation must be conducted to discover the reason for the fall.
Every component of the fall arrest system should be examined to rule out
equipment failure and to unearth potential compromises in system integrity. Of
course, impacted harnesses, lanyards, shock absorbers or other webbed products
should then be retired and replaced, and mechanicals, such as self-retracting
lifelines, need to be returned to the manufacturer for recertification.
A review of the rescue should take place after all of these
procedures have been followed. Workers should go over each step of the rescue
to understand if everything went properly or if something should have been done
differently. This may seem unnecessary but is a vital step in ensuring workers
learn from the incident. Remember this is not a review to place blame but an
opportunity to learn from experience. The more we learn from falls and
subsequent rescues, the better able we are to use equipment safely and
effectively while working at great heights.
Take it easy
Industrial rescue can and should be a simple process. Rescue
doesn't always have to be elaborate, fancy or technical. Sometimes,
it's possible to get too wrapped up in the concept of "technical
rescue." Technical rescue does have value, but it also tends to be very
time-intensive in both training and practice. Unless workers are practicing it
on a regular basis, it is tough to remember all of the various improvised
More and more, companies are shifting toward simplicity and
the ability to conduct effective and safe rescue with minimal training. Most
companies no longer have the money to invest in dedicated rescue squads. This
means that workers need to be taught simple--and
memorable--techniques for rescuing themselves and each other in a crisis.
Of course, paramount to all of this is ensuring that the
right systems are in place to prevent the fall from happening in the first
place. Making the initial choices about what equipment to use and how it will
be used are pivotal decisions in minimizing risk and protecting workers from
Just because we have all the equipment--harnesses,
lanyards and lifelines--doesn't mean we can be careless. We must
have the right attitude toward maintaining caution and safety in the workplace.
Unfortunately, Jamie Baker found out the hard way that a harness won't
save you if it's not connected. Workers and safety directors should
always remember this important lesson--it's safety for
safety's sake--not safety for compliance's sake.