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Get Out of the Line of Fire

When looking to make your workplace safer for your employees, the logical place to start is with the main types of injuries that do occur: caught in, struck by, falls, electrocution and release of energy. All of these injury types can, often times, also be classified as a “Line of Fire” injury. Line of Fire refers to those situations when employees put themselves in harm’s way during the course of their workday. Line of Fire hazards are one of the deadliest hazards found at the workplace, second only to slips, trips and falls; 27 percent of workplace deaths are related to Line of Fire accidents.

One aspect of the workplace that can be a hotbed of Line of Fire hazards is when employees are working aloft. The hazard is created when objects like tools and equipment are unintentionally dropped from heights, endangering all those working on the ground in the area. Whenever work is done overhead, there is a very real risk that objects will fall—gravity sees to it that this happens. The area under the elevated work zone is traditionally referred to as the “drop zone” and is typically viewed as an inverted cone.

The drop zone is an area rife with Line of Fire hazards for those working at ground level. The hazards of working aloft are intensified because of gravity and the basics of physics. Gravity causes things that are dropped from a height to fall to the ground. Any object that is dropped will create a certain amount of force when it lands. The higher the work is being performed, the more force the dropped or fallen object will generate. If a 2-pound object (not a terribly large object at the workplace) drops from a height of 30 feet, it will create or land with approximately 6,000 pounds of force. It follows that the same object dropped from a greater height or a larger object dropped from 30 feet will create an even larger force at landing. To put this in a different perspective: A 180 pound professional boxer has the ability to land a punch with a force of between 1,200 to 1,800 pounds. This force is clearly enough to cause someone to lose consciousness. Imagine the damage that would be caused if an employee is hit with 6,000 pounds of force.

It is obvious from the physics of dropped objects that the drop zone is a dangerous place to work. The best way to reduce Line of Fire hazards in the drop zone is to train your employees about the hazards and to carefully manage this area. Ways to minimize the risks to your employees around a drop zone include the following:

Establish a well-defined, clearly indentified drop zone below any elevated work position. The size of a drop zone depends on the following factors: the scope of work being performed and the potential for falling tools and equipment. It is imperative that the drop zone be kept clear of all people while work is occurring overhead.

barricade and mark the drop zone to prevent employees and vehicles from unexpectedly entering this area.

stop all overhead activities and ensure that all materials, tools and equipment are under control if a crew member must enter the drop zone.

Exercise positive controls whenever tools or materials need to be moved from the ground or bucket. Ever since history has recorded work being done at heights, workers have thrown materials and tools from the bucket, ladder or scaffold. This behavior reinforces unsafe practices that will certainly lead to an injury over time. Tool bags and hand lines are the only way to be certain that tools or materials will safely arrive to where they are needed.

Use good verbal and visual communication with individuals working aloft. Situational awareness can also help ensure that those working below are clear of any potential hazards.

Consider the use of new or different techniques to prevent tools, materials or equipment from falling. These techniques can make a huge difference in critical areas where space is at a premium. By using positive means to control tools, the risk to all below—employees as well as passers-by—can be minimized.

An example of this type of control is a tool lanyard. This is a leash extending from the tool to the employee’s wrist or other secure location. If the tool is dropped, it can only fall the length of the lanyard.

Rethinking the drop zone. As previously stated, the drop zone is typically thought of as an inverted cone shape. It may be a safer idea to extend the size of the drop zone. Obstructions can cause a dropped object to take a strange bounce and land outside the marked drop zone. Underestimating the distance an object can travel can result in serious injuries.

By using these precautions, your employees can minimize their risk of line of fire injury while working aloft or around those that are working overhead.

Diane Kelly is a safety specialist with Intec, Waverly, Pa. Intec is AWCI’s safety consultant.

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