Protecting Workers From UFO Dangers

by Bobby Pirtle

Republished with permission from Safety Management Group

While we’re really not worried about visitors from other planets making surprise visits to your jobsite, you do need to take steps to protect yourself and others from two different (and potentially deadly) types of UFOs: unexpected falling objects and unexpected flying objects.

If you think we’re being a bit hysterical in our response to those UFOs, consider that the National Safety Council reports that 473 workers died in 2011 (the most recent year for which we have statistics) as the result of being struck by some type of falling or flying object on a jobsite.

While many of those injuries may have been the result of objects such as tools that were dropped from above, or pieces of components that broke or snapped off, OSHA says there are fatalities from surprising sources. For example, there’s the time that carpenter using a nail gun missed the correct spot, and the nail shot through a wall and struck a worker 30 feet away in the head. Another example is the worker who was standing beneath a section of scaffolding that was being raised, when a section of ladder fell off the scaffold and struck him.

Even when falling or flying objects don’t result in fatalities, they can cause a wide range of injuries, from abrasions to concussions. That’s why it’s critical that workers and supervisors consider the potential hazards of falling or flying objects and take steps to prevent such incidents from resulting in injuries.

Injuries related to falling objects generally involve situations in which work is being performed above a worker, whether that’s on a platform, a scaffold, a ladder, or from an object that is being hoisted. Common examples are tools or other objects that are accidentally dropped or kicked off edges, or suspended loads that become unbalanced or fall out of slings.

Flying objects typically result when workers use power tools to modify materials or components, or when they perform tasks that include some amount of prying, pushing, or pulling. They can include everything from pieces of a saw blade snapping off and becoming airborne to debris being thrown from a nearby location.

As with any type of safety issue, protecting workers from these UFOs begins with awareness of the potential hazard and identifying tasks or situations that may result in falling or flying objects. If possible, steps should be taken to eliminate the hazard or engineer some kind of protection. For example, you can minimize the potential for objects falling off of scaffolds through the use of guardrails, toeboards, or screens, as well as by erecting catch platforms or debris nets below the work area. Tools should be securely fastened to the scaffolding when not in use, and materials should be stacked in ways that reduce the possibility that something will fall or be knocked off.

Use barricades to limit access to the areas below and around the scaffold. Warning signs will also provide a reminder to workers in the area. It’s also a good idea to remind workers that they should not be performing tasks directly below or adjacent to scaffolding and other raised work surfaces without taking steps to protect themselves and remaining alert. They should also not work under loads that are being moved by crane or hoist. When using power tools, all protective guards must be in place and in operating condition.

When hazards cannot be eliminated through an engineering solution, the next step involves identifying ways to protect individual workers. The most common is the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hardhats, safety shoes, and eye protection. Depending on the potential for and type of airborne debris or particles, eye protection could range from basic safety glasses to full face shields.

Finally, special care should be taken with tools that create the potential for flying objects. For example, when using compressed air for cleaning purposes, the pressure should be limited to 30 pounds per square inch, and users should wear appropriate PPE. In addition, powder-actuated tools should only be operated by workers who have received the proper training. Those tools must be positioned carefully to reduce the potential for inadvertently causing chips or parts to become airborne.

While we may not be able to explain all the strange lights in the night sky, there’s no mystery about these UFOs. We understand the causes and have knowledge of the steps and strategies that prevent injuries and damage. Taking a little extra time and remaining attentive will keep these UFOs from becoming a threat.

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