Readiness to the Rescue

July 17, 2003

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.

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 ground.

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 systems.

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 harm.

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.

About The Author: McGregor has worked in the fall protection industry for nine years. He currently serves as master trainer and director of business development for DBI/SALA Training & Consulting.

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