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Overcoming Slip, Trip and Fall Hazards on the ROW

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. It wasn’t too hot or too cold, and Jim, a new worker, was listening to the plan for the day with Jack and Mary as they walked on the right-of-way (ROW) to the drilling pad they would be working on. As they were walking, Jim stepped on a rock that caused his ankle to roll. Instinctively, he put his hand out to catch himself, but his arm didn’t quite make it to the right position before he hit the ground. Everyone heard a snap, and Jim felt the fracture in his left wrist. He knew that pain because he had sustained a similar injury a few years before, and he knew that it would affect his work for the next six to eight weeks. But what he didn’t know until he saw the doctor was that he also had torn two ligaments in his ankle. Regrettably, the surgery required to fix this mess wouldn’t go as well as planned, which would put Jim out of work for the next six months. In addition, this injury occurred in a non-employee-friendly workers’ compensation state, and Jim and his family would face severe financial issues as his take-home pay would be cut from $1,100 per week to exactly $442.28. The end. Not all fairy tales have a happy ending.

In real life, the contractor I work for – Supreme Industries – grew by 42 percent in 2017, which required us to hire many new workers. Surprisingly, of all the issues that could have arisen from this growth, it was slip, trip and fall (STF) injuries that popped up on our safety radar. Upon investigation, we found that approximately 70 percent of these injuries involved workers who had been with our company for less than six months and may not have been accustomed to working on a ROW. In response, we developed an STF training program and rolled it into our onboarding process, a move that – despite growing another 25 percent in 2018 on top of the 42 percent growth in 2017 – has reduced our STF injuries to zero. We at Supreme want to share with you some of our knowledge gained and lessons learned so you can help your workers do the job right and go home unharmed.

First, let’s review definitions for slips, trips and falls.

  • Slip: Losing traction, often from slick terrain or vehicles/equipment, steep slopes and/or boots that lack soles with good tread.
  • Trip: Losing balance while moving, usually because of unexpected changes in terrain, such as an object or a hole in the walkway.
  • Fall: Falling from one level to the same level, or to a lower level, usually because of a slip, trip and/or lack of situational awareness, such as inadvertently stepping off the edge of a mat, trailer or piece of equipment.

Preventive Measures
So, what are some general measures that can be taken to prevent STFs?

  • Survey, pick and clear the best route/working area before work begins.
  • Move slowly and deliberately.
  • Do not carry or move loads in areas of instability where STF hazards cannot be controlled.
  • If needed, run stability ropes down steep grades for workers to attach to and work from.
  • Barricade holes, stumps and similar items in the ROW to mitigate hazards.

One specific circumstance in which workers face STF hazards on the ROW is when they are attempting to get in and out of vehicles and equipment. Here are several ways to address these hazards.  

  • Uneven and unstable terrain can be improved by grading and/or compacting the site.
  • In rocky areas, workers should walk on smaller, more compacted/stable rocks, avoiding larger riprap-type rocks when possible, as well as ledge outcroppings that may give way under weight.
  • In brushy areas, workers should avoid stepping on logs, since they may roll or be slick from rain, snow and/or ice. Crews also can mow brushy areas to expose terrain or move brush away by hand to expose the ground.
  • Frosty, snowy and icy areas can pose significant risk; therefore, leaders should attempt to eliminate these hazards by using ice melt or sand on walkways, steps and work areas. Similarly, operators should clean off vehicle/equipment access steps and ladders. Lastly, workers should avoid these areas when possible, especially on slopes, and wear over-boot ice cleats that are appropriate for the type of work they’re performing.
  • If possible, eliminate the mud from muddy areas by grading the site. Other approaches include dumping sand, cleaning off vehicle/equipment steps and ladders, and avoiding muddy areas when possible.
  • Timber mats can present unique hazards related to the type and quality of the mats used. Leaders should use the best-quality solid mats – those without lifting hook holes – for walking/working surfaces, restricting those of lesser quality for use as runners underneath. When mat holes are present, they can be filled with gravel or sand to eliminate the hazard, or painted with fluorescent paint to make them more visible. Workers should avoid walking near mat edges and holes.

Situational Awareness
Situational awareness can be an issue with STF hazards when workers:

  • Focus more on the work than the terrain. We need to regularly remind workers about STF hazards throughout the day, and we may need to use a spotter in areas where both the STF risk is high and the need for worker focus is great.
  • Don’t recognize changes in the weather that create STF hazards related to frost, snow, ice, rain or mud. In these cases, we need to remind workers of the potential changes during the morning and afternoon tailboard meetings.

Rushing is related to situational awareness because it can steal our focus, but it differs in that rushing is an intentional choice, whereas lack of situational awareness is more of an unintentional drift. Rushing on our job sites might look like frustration or a worker “just trying to be a hand.” Regardless of the reason, workers should be calmed and slowed down, and reminded that deliberate, careful work is safer, more efficient and produces better-quality results.

Optimal Footwear
Lastly, footwear can contribute to STF issues when workers wear non-supportive boots without good tread. Lace-up boots that extend above the ankle and have the appropriate soles, heels and tread for conditions should be worn.

About the Author: Jesse Hardy, CSP, CET, CUSP, is vice president of HSE for Supreme Industries, a Harwinton, Connecticut-based contractor that specializes in right-of-way clearing, building access roads and drilling.

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