By Dan Lutat
Director of Sustainable Energy Resources and Technologies
Iowa Lakes Community College
Most of us probably aren’t thinking about how the right safety information could save the life of a co-worker. Most of us also aren’t working at a job where employees climb some 300 feet in the air to repair or maintain a wind turbine. But for those technicians who risk their lives to ensure turbines stay productive, education on something as simple as tool safety could mean the difference between a successful workday at heights or a tragic one.
Although best practices are especially important for proper use of fall-protection equipment, the same should hold true for jobsite tools. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from all industries in the U.S., over 10,000 injuries were recorded due to fallen objects in 2013 that resulted in days away from work. Work-related injury deaths because of contact with objects and equipment were down slightly in 2014, but the largest proportion of those fatal injuries occurred when workers were struck by falling objects.
The wind industry is not taking this issue lightly and has made a recent push to support a zero-drop philosophy, meaning every tool or piece of equipment brought up-tower is secured to prevent accidental drops. A small one to two-pound wrench might not seem like much of a safety hazard, but an accidental drop from atop of a wind tower could result in life-threatening injury.
This past October, the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Environmental, Health & Safety Committee launched a Stop the Drop campaign to help prevent dropped objects at work sites. AWEA’s Safety Committee hopes to raise awareness and share best-practice guidelines through safety webinars, online forums, white papers, and conferences.
But sometimes the best way to prevent unsafe practices is to ensure they never begin in the first place. The wind program at Iowa Lakes Community College has taken this challenge seriously by incorporating fall protection and tool safety into its Wind Energy and Turbine Technology course. This academic program for wind-turbine service technicians is one of just seven programs nationwide to receive AWEA’s Seal of Approval. Students train with industry experts on a two-megawatt turbine and are expected to deal with real-life situations – where they must routinely plan for and incorporate dropped-object prevention.
Through partnerships with organizations such as tool-safety company Snap-on, and the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3) for third-party testing, Iowa Lakes is able to provide industry-recognized certification to their students while gaining an inside look at what’s required in the field.
The training team has also learned a few important things through these connections.
- Training is a critical first step, but it’s of limited value without an industry that also recognizes the significance of tool safety in the workplace. When it’s possible to successfully prevent people from falling with proper protection, then it’s also possible to prevent objects from dropping with the correct safety devices. Currently, dropped objects are a safety issue that is sorely lacking in legislation or regulatory mandates.
- A shift in worksite culture is key. It’s worth rethinking safety measures at wind sites with a commitment to zero-drop. For example, to completely prevent drops, it’s important to ensure technicians treat jobsite tools as extensions of themselves and not as separate objects.
- Safety nets are important, but offer no guarantees. Most wind technicians would not consider climbing a turbine tower without first suiting up in personal protective equipment. The same should hold true for the tools needed to get the job done. This includes training in proper use of tool lanyards and tethers. Just last year, a man was killed when he was accidentally struck by a tape measure that fell some 50 feet off a New Jersey building under construction. If the tape measure had been used correctly, a simple tool tether could have prevented this tragedy.
- Old dogs can learn new tricks. The team at Iowa Lakes has found that inviting veteran technicians to the program does two things: it provides an opportunity for these techs to update their skills and take on a mentorship role in the classroom. The collaboration between new trainees and experienced techs often leads to better worksite practices. It also gives veterans a change of pace outside of their regular work environment to contemplate and discuss new ideas and skillsets, which they’ll often take back and share with their co-workers.
A safety roadmap to success
Tethering a wrench or tape measure is fairly simple process. However, when project timelines demand short deadlines and quick work, it’s easy to see how certain safety steps might get skipped for the sake of time. This is where personal values and a worksite culture that favors safety at all costs are important.
Behaviors say a lot about a person or employee’s values (ex. Spending an extra few minutes safely tethering tools). There are two ways that deeply held beliefs and values can change. One is through a significant emotional event and the other is through repeated training and indoctrination over time.
The wind team at Iowa Lakes attempts to do both. They have developed a road map that highlights the significance of safety in the wind industry’s workforce and integrates “the practice of prevention” into the work itself. Even though this map was created as an educational platform to help train the psychomotor skills of new technician, it also works well for those already in the field.
The safety map follows these several steps:
1. Create a need for change. This step taps into the emotions of students with a “Letter to the family” exercise. Participants are asked to imagine that they are responsible for the death of a close personal friend on the job because they chose not to apply a dropped-object prevention method. However, the intent is not for students to complete the letter but to evoke the emotion that matches such a tragic and preventable event. Think about it for a moment. What would you say under such circumstances?
It’s not easy to find the right words to tell the family of a close friend that your negligence resulted in a co-worker’s death. By getting people’s emotions in the right place, the hope is they’ll transfer the potential scenario to the workplace and make a conscious decision about how they behave at work. The experience also sets the stage for a serious discussion about safety and what it means to work as a wind technician. Afterwards, participants are asked to sign a pledge that supports the elimination of dropped objects at work sites.
The Iowa Lakes team found this exercise also works surprisingly well for experienced technicians. The emotional element tends to break down some of the corporate habits and memories – those habitual behaviors that are passed down from one generation of a worker to another – common to veteran employees.
2. Learn the tools of the trade. The second step in the road map attempts to instill good tool-handling habits. Participants work with different tools and fall protection attachment points to practice proper techniques, and learn about the principles of dropped object prevention.
After breaking down the emotional barriers in step one, the aim here is to lock in good habits and build the psychomotor competencies that are necessary to maintain a safe and productive work environment. This involves working with small hand tools and larger equipment, such as hydraulic pumps and large torque wrenches that are also brought up and down tower during turbine installation and maintenance. It also includes lessons in time management and productivity.
Case in point: You’re about to go up-tower and remember the new tool lanyard that your company expects you to work with. No big deal, right? You’ve used lanyards before. Well, this is often where students begin to recognize how quickly productivity can suffer if they’re not well versed in how to attach the lanyard for safe and proper tool use. Proper forethought in designing a tool-control system specific to the task at hand also helps with time management. Participants must first understand how the various tools and attachment points work if they’re going to be effective when working on a task at heights. They must also hold their employer accountable for proper safety training.
The Iowa Lakes wind program also covers how to tether heavier objects to prevent injury, calculate swing radiuses of tethered tools, and decrease fall factors of each object. It also covers how to fail.
This means that by creating the potential for accidents in a safe training setting, students can learn how to mitigate the occurrence of potential hazards in the field. Part of the culture for change and dropped-object awareness is recognition that these incidences are almost all accidents. Occasionally, a wrench will fall out of a nacelle, but with the right protective gear and reduced swing radius, simple safety measures can prevent serious harm or damage below.
3. Decipher the engineering. As part of the safety and swing radius training, students in Iowa Lakes’ wind program get a first-hand look at the tools of the trade and the engineering behind fall-protection gear. It’s the only way students can fully understand that if they’re working with a 35-pound lanyard attached to a 35-pound tool, the lanyard would handle a drop at a fall factor of 2.
Fall factors are often used to quantify the severity of a fall from heights. A fall factor can have a value between 0 and 2 for a tethered object. Students must assess every task for its drop potential and calculate the fall factor and mitigation measure. By understanding the process and engineering behind each tool, tether, and lanyard, students begin to realize that every task at a wind farm requires careful analysis beforehand to optimize the environment for safety.
Climbing some 300 ft. to a small nacelle means only bringing the necessary tools required for the job and accounting for each item before leaving the work site. The last thing a technician wants to do at the end of a long day is reach the base of a tower only to notice something was left behind. Any tool left behind can be a safety hazard.
Today safety gear can also often be customized to the wearer to best suit working conditions and to ensure greater safety and flexibility in the field. Whether working from a rope, in the nacelle, or on a deck at height, training puts participants in a position to evaluate each task and consider how they would make the gear or system safer. Through analysis, practice, failure, and success, the ultimate goal of the training is to make safety and hazard prevention a natural part of the job.
Get assessed. As part of the final step in the safety road map, participants go through a “teach-back” exercise where they relay the concepts learned to staff and other students to demonstrate their knowledge. Afterwards, they complete a self-assessment and listen to feedback from fellow students.
Lastly, participants take an objective test and have to receive 80% or better to pass. They also have to participate in class and internalize the concepts taught to receive certification. In this part of the program, real-life field examples are also reviewed and discussed. One example includes an experience Snap-on Tools brought back from a field company.
In an attempt to ensure safety, the company outfitted employees with a lot of expensive safety tools for working at heights and preventing dropped objects. But over the following year they actually lost about 50% of their productivity. The reason? The company didn’t spend time training employees on how to properly use the new tools to ensure safety and maintain productivity. The lesson: investing in the right tools and having the best resources means nothing if you can’t implement them properly.
Proper fall protection and dropped tool safety training is one of the most important lessons Iowa Lakes hopes to impart to their students. But what’s even more important to the program staff is that participants leave with a sense of responsibility. Tools, safety gear, regulations, and jobsites will all change over time. So when it comes to putting safety first, technicians must think beyond themselves and their immediate work environment. There is an inherent responsibility for others that comes with the job and that should never be forgotten.