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OSHA Safe + Sound Week: Never Underestimate the Importance of Fall Protection

To honor OSHA’s 2020 Safe+Sound Week we are sharing another story from our recently released Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Lab Research, Vol. 5.  

Violations related to fall protection have been #1 on OSHA’s top 10 most cited violations list for 9 consecutive years.

An excerpt from Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Lab Research, Vol. 5

Never Underestimate the Importance of Fall Protection

It was the day before Thanksgiving. I was looking forward to having a few days off to hang out with my family, relax, and eat delicious food. I was doing some last-minute measurements for a new pH pit at work. The pit is essentially a tank that holds wastewater while the pH is adjusted to a neutral level, before it can be drained back into the municipal water system. I was measuring the old pit, so that we would know what kind of capacity we would need for the new one. It was a simple task that would take only a few minutes and I could be on my way home.

To take the measurements, I needed to remove a grate on top of the tank and use a laser distance measurer to measure the inside of the tank. The grate was rather heavy, but I managed to wiggle it off to the side. I lowered my body so that it was level with the top of the tank and stuck my head and arm inside to take the measurements. The tank was empty at the time, so I didn’t have to worry about being exposed to a harsh pH or the chemicals that are used to neutralize it. I took the measurements and eased myself back into a standing position.

I tried to wiggle the grate back into place, but it was too heavy, and the angle was too awkward for me to get it back into place without the whole thing falling into the tank. I radioed one of the other maintenance staff members to see if he could help me get it back into place. Within a few minutes, Jeff was there to help.

The incident

Jeff went to the other side of the opening and got into position to lift the grate. I stood opposite him, leaning over with my feet planted firmly at the edge of the opening. On the count of three, we both lifted the grate and began to slowly move it into place.

“Wow! This thing is heavy!” exclaimed Jeff.

“I know! That’s why I needed your help!” I replied.

Just then, I could see Jeff’s grip on the grate begin to loosen. It was slipping through his fingers.  “I’m not sure how much longer my grip will hold,” he said, “maybe we should try to set it down.”

It was too late. At that moment the grate slipped from his grip, missing the edge of the opening and plummeting into the tank. I tightened my grip and braced myself for the full weight of the grate, trying to keep it from falling all the way in. The grate was way too heavy, and it took me with it. Because I was standing, the weight of the grate pulled me headfirst into the tank. I let out a scream as I fell to the bottom. Then, everything went black.

The Aftermath

By the time I came to, I was in a hospital bed with 18 stitches in my head. Jeff was there, along with my wife and two nurses. I’ll never forget the look of relief on my wife’s face as I opened my eyes and she realized I was going to be OK. I was a bit groggy but wanted to know what happened. The nurses examined me while Jeff filled me in.

He explained that when I fell into the tank, I hit my head on a pipe on the way down, which knocked me out. The impact put a gash in my forehead, which began bleeding profusely. Luckily, Jeff was able to radio for help while he lowered himself in and tried to stop the bleeding. He didn’t move me, knowing that my spine could be injured and moving me might cause even more damage. He waited for what seemed like hours for the paramedics to arrive (though it was only a few minutes).

After evaluating me as well they could, given that I was unconscious, the paramedics put me on a backboard and hoisted me out of the tank. An ambulance took me to the hospital, where they stitched up the gash in my head and ran tests to make sure I was OK. Luckily nothing was broken, but I did give myself a severe concussion. Now that I was conscious, they would need to monitor me for at least the next 24 hours to make sure I remained stable. It meant I would be missing Thanksgiving dinner with my family the next day.

Lucky for me, Jeff was there and was able to get help right away. Had I not called him to help me move the grate, but instead tried to move it myself, it might have been hours before anyone realized I had fallen into the pit. I was also very lucky that my injury wasn’t worse. I could have easily broken my neck or back. Even worse, I could had been paralyzed by or died from the fall. I was lucky to escape with only a concussion, a horrible headache for a few days, and some stitches. The scar will be a good reminder of the lessons I learned that day.

To request your copy of Incidents, Accidents, and Near Misses in Lab Research, Vol. 5 contact [email protected].

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