No one would argue that tower workers have an extremely hazardous job. Every year, statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show these workers suffer injuries and deaths in much higher numbers than other workers at height.
When working at height, the danger of a fall is obvious; however, many workers receive little or no fall protection training, use the wrong fall protection equipment (or use their equipment improperly) or, in some cases, fail to use fall protection equipment at all. It is every company's responsibility to prepare their employees for safely working at heights, and that preparation must include understanding the fall protection challenges of the job and how the challenges can be mitigated to get the job done safely.
Towers serve multiple functions, including supporting telecommunications networks. Each year, thousands of new towers are erected, mostly for cell phones, and as workers climb to build or maintain them, they are at risk of a fall. The tallest towers that have licensed construction permits in the United States now are over 2,000 feet tall. Tower work often requires employees to climb and move from one area of the tower to another, increasing the risk of falling at significant heights.
To start, there are four essential pieces of fall protection equipment tower workers should have in their “tool box”: anchorage connectors, body support, connecting components and rescue systems.
For work requiring vertical mobility, the choice of anchorage connector could be a ladder safety system, a mobile rope grab or a static wire rope grab. Ladder safety systems attach to permanent, fixed ladders and provide optimal fall protection and freedom of movement for workers. A tensioned cable runs the length of the entire climbing structure, with a top and bottom bracket serving as fixed anchors for the cable. To climb, a worker connects the front D-ring of his harness to a safety sleeve on the cable, which automatically follows his movements up the fixed ladder. If the climber slips, the sleeve locks onto the cable and prevents the worker from falling.
Mobile rope grabs and static wire rope grabs are temporary devices and can be installed or removed at any point along the lifeline. The rope grab utilizes a cam lever as well as a friction-sensitive brake to lock the rope grab onto the lifeline in the event of a fall. A static wire rope grab employs a wedging action that grips and locks onto the cable if the worker slips. For fixed connection work, a scaffold choker or tie-off adapter provides a safe and easy anchor point.
When selecting a body support harness, consider comfort, quality and durability. Since tower workers likely will be wearing the harness for long periods of time, harnesses with hip padding, mesh lining and soft edging features will help keep workers comfortable while working at height. Further, there now are harnesses specifically made for tower climbing with built-in workseats and other specialized features.
There are many different types and options for connecting components, so think about the level of mobility the worker will need and the logistics of the work environment. Shock-absorbing lanyards and self-retracting lifelines both provide excellent protection in the event of a fall. Look for connectors that provide 100 percent tie-off capability, allowing the worker to stay protected while they move from one location to another. When work positioning is required, a rebar assembly limiting free fall distance to 2 feet or less can provide a safe connection to many kinds of structures.
A common fall protection challenge involves calculating required fall clearance and choosing the correct equipment. The importance of knowing what the required clearance for a particular fall arrest system is obvious. If you know what the required clearance distance is and you allow for it, you help minimize the potential for injury in the event of a fall. But if you do not know what the required clearance is or you miscalculate, the results of a fall can result in serious injury and may require a rescue operation.
Although many workers use a system that incorporates a shock absorbing lanyard, these systems typically require approximately 18 feet of fall clearance. Some ladder safety systems and self-retracting lifelines can reduce this number significantly and therefore are much safer and are preferred.
One example is a tie-back, self-retracting lifeline attached directly to the worker's dorsal D-ring. A tie-back, self-retracting lifeline (SRL) features unique snap hooks with high gate strength designed specifically for tie-back use. With this type of hook, the end of the lifeline can be wrapped around the structure and tied back into itself, eliminating the need for a separate anchorage connector. These systems feature inertia-activated brakes, which lock quickly and stop a falling worker within a matter of inches. With a tie-back SRL, it still is important to consider fall clearance, but it is recommended that workers account for approximately 6 feet, compared to the more restrictive 18 feet that is recommended for 6-foot, shock-absorbing lanyards. (OSHA further illustrates and regulates fall protection in more detail in part number 1926, subpart M.)
Safety always should be the primary concern when choosing fall protection equipment for employees working at heights. Fall hazards are an obvious threat for tower workers, yet this hazard still is overlooked and underestimated in the industry. Companies need to be aware of the fall protection challenges their workers face and provide proper training and equipment. Training should cover the four essential pieces of fall protection equipment that tower workers should have in their tool box: anchorage connectors, body support, connecting components and rescue systems. With proper training and equipment, no worker will get in over his head.
Jim Hutter is a senior training specialist with Capital Safety, a leading designer and manufacturer of fall protection and rescue products, including the DBI-SALA and PROTECTA brands. For more information, visit http://www.capitalsafety.com.