The Pyramid Method to Addressing the Hazard of Falling Objects in the Workplace

Falling-Object-safety-signEvery day across the country falling objects and loads injure workers while on the job. While some incidents are only close calls, and others result in minor injuries and no loss of work, while others may cause death or permanent injury. Because nearly every industry involves the transporting of pallets and/or containers of materials, these incidents are common on a large scale. As a safety manager, it is your responsibility to implement a falling object safety program that adequately protects the employees in your workplace. In this article, we’re going to go through several key areas you should address in order to accomplish this goal.

Start at “Meta-Level”

When organizing your safety programs, it can be helpful to think of each aspect as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is a broad base, which represents the overall workplace culture and setup of your job site. Because these items affect all employees’ safety, you should start with this area first. Afterward, you can move up the pyramid to more specific things like individual worker behaviour, etc.

So what’s at the bottom of your own falling object prevention and protection pyramid? The best way to start out is to take a look at your day-to-day operations and list all of the activities in which falling objects potentially pose a threat. To illustrate just how many such hazards might exist in a short period of examination, let’s consider such hazards in large surplus warehouse stores (think Costco, Sam’s Club, etc.).

For this example, let’s call our worker Ted, and assume that he arrives at 6:30 sharp each morning to help receive shipments. As he arrives, the first truck pulls in and Ted and his co-workers get to work unloading the truck. As they pull bags from the truck, a sack of dog food nudges its way off of the top shelf inside the truck. Ted notices it before it can slide off, but it was headed for another employee and not all workers might be so alert at 6:30 in the morning; we’ll call this hazard number “1”. As Ted moves through his morning, he notices pallets being constantly raised and lowered on a forklift while workers walk about below. While nothing fall off of it, he recognizes that if something were to slip, these workers would be at risk, so he jots it down as “2.” As he is about to break for lunch, a pallet stack falls over in the loading bay after a truck backs up a few inches too far and bumps it; a co-worker is grazed, but it could have been a lot worse! Yikes, it’s barely lunchtime and Ted’s spotted three hazards/close near misses.

In your own business, falling object hazards might be hidden in everyday activities that seem routine, mundane, and completely safe. Even so, you need to maintain a critical eye as you go through your warehouse/office/business and note every possible hazard. This list will form the strong base for the rest of your safety efforts.

Go through your list one by one and think about how you might be able to improve or eliminate risks. In Ted’s case, his safety manager should probably find a new place for stacking empty pallets where there is no risk of machinery or vehicle interference. Additionally, a rule should be established for workers on foot to keep a minimum distance from forklifts in operation (this is true even if the forks are not raised at the time). Specific safety signage regarding forklift traffic and hazards (such as this sign) should be posted to make sure all employees are alert to forklift hazards. Finally, a one-worker-in or daisy chain policy might help to ensure that objects one employee disturbs don’t fall and hit another when unloading trucks in the morning. Of course, your mileage will vary, but you can see how you can quickly plug up some “leaks” at the broad workplace level of falling object safety.

Here are a few more suggestions provided by OSHA for overall workplace improvement with regards to falling object prevention:

  • Where protection is required, select fall protection systems appropriate for given situations.
  • Use proper construction and installation of safety systems.
  • Supervise employees properly.
  • Use safe work procedures.
  • Train workers in the proper selection, use, and maintenance of all protection systems

Specialize Slightly

Next you need to start looking at specific workers, tasks, and teams, moving toward the top of your pyramid. Consider things like:

Team Communication: Not all falling object injuries are a result of an item slipping or a chance mishap. Sometimes, employees are throwing objects and simply don’t realize a co-worker is below/in harm’s way. Communication systems between team members can help circumvent this type of confusion.

Personal Protection Equipment: While hard hats will always carry a construction connotation, they’re useful in a number of other industries as well. Posting simple signs (such as this floor sign) can help to remind employees to utilize the help of hard hats in specific areas. In fact, any loading/unloading bay, manufacturing site with overheard cranes/forklifts, or business in which overhead shelving is used to store stock can make use of hard hats. Protective measures can be extended to inventory as well; ensure that extra binding straps are used to secure loads to pallets and truck beds, shrink wrap is used to keep stacks of items from shifting, etc.

Specialize Completely

At the very top of your pyramid is your complete safety program. While broad at a glance, it should account for every detail of every situation that could occur in your workplace (thereby getting very, very specific). OSHA requires written health and safety plans, and falling object prevention is no exception. Write down, to the point of excruciating detail, what workers should be doing in situations where an injury occurs, in a situation where a close call or near miss occurs (should they report it? Where to?), how about when they see a potential hazard themselves that you might have missed, how do these go about getting added to the plan, etc. Additionally, think of seasonal fluctuations, accommodations for workers with a disability, for employees who speak English as a second language, etc.

While working your way through, it may help to visually draw out your pyramid and the steps you would deem appropriate at various spots along the way. By the time you reach the top, as long as you’ve been thorough, you’ll have a lot less risk, and lot more peace of mind.

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