Dropped Objects: Risk Awareness and Prevention – Toolbox Talks
Toolbox Talks are intended to facilitate worksite health and safety conversations. Click here to download talking points on Objects at Heights Risk Awareness and Prevention to share with your crew.
TL;DR // Short Attention Span? If you remember nothing else from this post, remember these things... Hey, look! A squirrel!
- Objects at Heights safety should be a part of EVERY at-heights safety plan—secure people and objects!
- Objects at Heights plans should have drop prevention, housekeeping and safe transport practices in place
- Use the hierarchy of controls to implement Engineering Controls (Prevention) in addition to Administration Controls and PPE Controls (Protection)
- Remember the 3T’s: Trapped, Tethered and Topped
- Make sure your equipment is tested and tagged by the manufacturer
Quick. What do you think of when you hear “Safety at Heights”? OK, time’s up, pencils down. If you’re like most, your brain went straight to a worker in a fall arrest harness. And for good reason. Fall protection for the worker is wickedly important and, thankfully, it has come a long, long way over the last century.
But there’s another component of Safety at Heights that has only recently been given the attention it also deserves: Objects at Heights. Just as fall prevention is the goal in the category of Workers at Heights, the goal in the category of Objects at Heights is fall prevention for the tools those workers bring to heights.
While the use of a body harness for people working at heights is standard practice, tethering the tools they’re using is not. Typically, the potential dangers of falling objects at jobsites are addressed with passive engineering controls like toe boards, netting, barricades and the like. But active controls like those called out in the dropped objects standard are much less common. Those include things like tool and anchor attachments, tool lanyards and topped containers.
THE RISK OF DROPPED OBJECTS
Dropped Objects Defined
The definition of a “dropped object”, as outlined by the DROPS organization, is "any object that falls from its previous position.” Pretty straightforward, yeah? But still, a couple things worth noting:
- This considers workers themselves as a separate category
- The dropped object can be anything, from a tiny bolt to a complete piece of structure like the boom of a crane
Additionally, there are two types of dropped objects: static and dynamic.
- Static Dropped Objects: Any object that falls from a stationary position under its own weight
- Dynamic Dropped Objects: Any object that falls as a result of a secondary force
Causes of Dropped Objects
Some are obvious, others not so much. We can break those causes into two categories. Those brought on by the elements, and those generated by workers or equipment.
- Environmental (wind, rain, snow, sea motion)
- Corrosion or other deterioration
- Body effects (sweaty or numb hands, fatigue)
Worker or equipment generated:
- Tripping or colliding
- Poor housekeeping
- Not following procedures
- Miscalculations and poor design
- Missed or inadequate inspections
- Homemade tools and equipment
A Quick Word on Poor Housekeeping
Being unorganized while working at height can lead to its own set of issues, such as unnecessary movement and time at height. Simple math tells us that increasing the last two also increases the chances an incident will occur. Sloppy cord management is a popular housekeeping issue. Whether it be hoses, ropes or electrical cords, without taking care to route and/or store them safely, they become a danger laying across walkways, platforms, etc.
Another result of poor housekeeping? Foreign materials causing potential damage. Think about litter getting sucked up in an aircraft engine or loose nails on the ground puncturing a tire.
Moral: When things aren’t in their proper place, bad stuff happens.
A close relation to housekeeping is transportation of equipment to and from the at-heights work zone.
Improper equipment transport can lead to:
- Not maintaining three points of contact
- Overloading a climber
- Overflowing containers
- Using improperly rated containers
THE COST OF DROPPED OBJECTS
Now that you know the risks, let’s look at the costs associated with them, including injury/fatality, damage and lost productivity.
Injury + Fatality
Injury and fatalities are the most severe costs associated with these risks. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 241 deaths and almost 52,000 injuries due to falling objects.
How they occur:
- Struck by falling object (worker or bystander)
- Falls from height
- Gut reaction trying to catch a falling object
- Tool pulling worker down with it if tethered improperly
- Slips, trips and falls
- Sprains and strains
- Struck by falling objects
While workers and bystanders can certainly be injured by falling objects, there’s a less obvious risk to the individual that drops the object, too. Think about your gut reaction after you’ve dropped something (AKA the “oh sh!t effect”). That instinct to quickly reach out for it could throw a worker off balance.
Damage can take many forms when it comes to Objects at Heights risks. The two most obvious types of damage are to the object itself or to something the dropped object hits below. Less obvious would be damage to the structure being worked on, like to an aircraft wing or the nacelle of a wind tower.
Yet another form of damage can occur from foreign material/objects. Think of an engine manufacturing facility leaving a small bolt inside one of their engines. Not good.
Environmental damage can also stem from dropped objects or poor housekeeping if the objects are not retrieved. Jobsites over water like bridge construction or offshore drilling operations come to mind.
The third category of costs related to dropped objects is lost productivity. This could be associated financial loss when work stops to investigate a near miss. Or it could simply be the lost time from a worker climbing back down to retrieve a tool and climbing all the way back up again.
SOLUTIONS FOR DROPPED OBJECTS PREVENTION
You’ve seen the risks and the damage that can be done. So how do we stop the drops? Let’s take a look at some Objects at Heights solutions that can be implemented through the lens of the hierarchy of controls.
The hierarchy of controls is a sequence of controls safety professionals should go through when implementing solutions for a particular risk.
Safety equipment most commonly falls into the bottom three categories.
Personal Protective Equipment PPE
PPE measures like hard hats and safety glasses are always the last line of defense (the first, most effective is eliminating the risk all together). Though important to an overall strategy for Objects at Heights safety, we shouldn’t stop at just mere protection.
Administrative Controls look to change the behavior of the worker through training, awareness or implementing policies and procedures.
Awareness and communication:
- Signs, stickers, barricade tape
- Toolbox talks
- Training, training, training!
Policies and procedures:
- Identifying “red areas” or “drop zones”
- Hoisting vs. carrying procedures
Objects at Heights engineering controls look to PREVENT an object hazard. It prevents a drop from occurring or prevents any loose item from becoming a trip hazard. PREVENTION is the key word here compared to PROTECTION (like hard hats).
There are two types of engineering controls:
- Passive controls: Toe boards, netting, barricading
- Active controls: Tool connectors, lanyards and topped containers
Passive controls do not require active participation from the worker. These solutions, like netting, are stationary solutions that prevent an object from becoming a hazard or catch it as it falls.
Active controls, like tool lanyards, are different. They are interacted with through the work day by the worker and move with them during the job.
Active Solutions: The “3T’s” of O@H Safety
Just as fall protection has the ABCs (Anchorage, Body Support, Connectors), the category of Objects at Heights has the 3T’s: Trapped, Tethered, Topped.
The biggest issue with tools at height is that the vast majority of them do not have connection points built into them (be cautious—just because something looks like it has a connection point, it doesn’t mean it’s engineered to be one.) This where trapping comes in.
Trapping is a term used to describe the installation, or "trapping", of retrofit attachment points onto tools and anchoring locations. Note that anchor attachments built for heaver tools should only be installed onto locations that are secure—never affixed to an individual.
Tool attachments come in a variety of designs based on the tools they are intended to tether. These “Tool Traps” should never compromise the integrity of the tool or impede the tool’s primary function.
They are available in one or two step applications (see video above).
Tethering prevents the object itself from falling, or at least falling very far, by securing the tool or object to a worker or other anchor point. This retention is achieved most often through the use of tool lanyards.
Accounting for Velocity
But, while tethers can stop a tool from crashing to the ground, they can’t stop gravity or reduce deceleration. When “caught” by a tether, the dropped object is subject to a shock load—a force that’s instantly transmitted across the whole system (tool, attachment, tether and anchor point). This can not only be detrimental to the tool (the same “whiplash” that affects falling workers can also damage internal equipment components) but, most importantly, to the worker the tool is attached to. The force can create jarring on the body or, in a worst case scenario, pull the worker down along with it.
All of this is why, whenever possible, you should use lanyards with a shock-absorbing design. These lanyards will both prevent the tool from hitting the ground and absorb some of the dynamic force—decelerating the tool to a smooth, safe, uneventful stop. Further, minimizing the length of the lanyard will also reduce the time and distance a dropped tool can travel (and, as a result, the acceleration and forces which must be absorbed).
Beyond shock absorption, here are the major things to consider when choosing a tool lanyard:
- What is the weight of the tool you’re using? Choose the appropriate capacity tool lanyard.
- What type of connection is needed for the tool? This is currently one of the most challenging parts of the system. Pick a lanyard with connectors that are secure and appropriate.
- What type of clearance is needed? For example, you wouldn’t want a long tool lanyard if you were working on your knees performing maintenance on top of an aircraft.
As tool tethering has evolved, a variety of tool lanyard styles have surfaced but most fall into five basic categories:
- Wrist lanyards use the individual’s wrist as an anchor point to minimize drop distance and snag hazards
- Coil lanyards and retractable lanyards draw the length back inward for convenient carrying and minimized snag hazards
- Traditional lanyards, the most common solution, use a determined length of tether to tie tools off
- Specialty lanyards concentrate on specific equipment to tether, like a hard hat or mobile device
The 3rd T, “Topping”, consists of the containers workers use to transport and store tools and equipment at heights. Topping describes having a closure on all containers, whether it’s a bucket, box or bag to prevent contents from spilling out if tipped over.
There are two types of containers used:
Many workers use tool pouches and bolt bags to carry equipment. Look for pouches that are designed with a cover that is secure. Whether it’s a flap, drawstring or other type of closure on the pouch, it should keep the contents from spilling out if the worker is climbing, bending over or stretching to reach something.
Containers that are hoisted should also be topped. Especially because the user has less control than they do with a pouch or bag they are carrying. Bags and buckets are often attached to a line or other piece of equipment and lifted. In the event the line or container catches while in transit causing it to turn or tip, a top will prevent the contents in the container from raining onto individuals and equipment below.
Regardless of the type or mode of transportation, containers should have a secure closure or “top” that can cover contents and prevent them from spilling if inverted. Many containers also have tethering points available to attach tool lanyards. If a container does not have a secure closure, these tethering points are required.
Like tethering, there are certain factors to consider when choosing how to store tools or other objects and what containers to use when doing so:
- Weight of the equipment: A worker should determine the combined weight of the equipment to make sure it is safe with the capacity of container being used
- Type of equipment being stored or transferred: Whether small parts or large items, the closure on the container should be designed to keep that type of equipment securely inside
- Carry vs. hoist: Determining if a worker is going to carry the equipment to the at-heights work zone or hoist it
- Job conditions: How the container materials and design will be affected by environmental factors should also be considered—for example, canvas would be a poor choice in very damp conditions
TESTED TO BE TRUSTED
The 3T’s of Objects at Heights safety should all have one additional T in common—tested. Every solution you use should be tested and labeled with a maximum capacity rating.
We recommend that all equipment is tested with a safety factor. For instance, Ergodyne’s tool lanyards are drop tested with a 2:1 safety factor [e.g. a 10lbs (4.5kg) tool lanyard is tested to 20lbs (9.0kg)]. Containers are statically tested to a 5:1 safety factor [e.g. 150lbs (68kg) bucket is tested to 750lbs (340kg)].
Safety factors are built into all quality safety equipment. This is especially important when considering the high potential for misuse—folks loading up buckets and bags past their stated capacity, for instance. The safety factor ensures that, if a worker inappropriately connects an 11lbs (5kg) tool to a 10lbs (4.5kg) tool lanyard, the situation remains safe.