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Dropped tools can kill. Here's how to secure tools at heights

Working at heights

Imagine this: one of your workers drops a 3-pound tool from a height of 20 feet. The tool hits a worker below with 336 pounds of force. Just 16 pounds of force can fracture a skull.

Scenarios like this play out every day in workplaces across Canada. In fact, over 27,000 workplace incidents involving dropped objects are reported to Canada's workers compensation boards each year, says Barry White, a fall protection specialist with 3M Canada. "That works out to 145 per day. Obviously, we have some work to do when it comes to preventing dropped objects." White and his colleague Andrea Martin, also a fall protection specialist, offer their advice for developing a plan to protect workers from falling objects.

A longtime issue

Concerns about the risks of falling tools were first raised publicly over 100 years ago, when a bridge was being built across New York's East River. An article in The New York Times voiced concerns about dropped tools hitting pedestrians. As a result, workers were told to be more careful and signs were placed cautioning the public about men working above.

"That's virtually the exact same thing we are doing in workplaces today," says White. The most common strategy is to use signage warning workers and passersby of potential dangers when approaching a certain area. Barriers and netting are not always effective as a preventive measure because "it only works if dropped objects fall straight down," he points out. "Unfortunately, they typically fall, hit some sort of obstruction, and deflect outwards."

In Canada and the U.S., industry is pushing for legislation requiring workplaces to implement dropped object programs that include tool tethering processes, says White. These processes strive to prevent incidents from occurring by reducing the number of dropped tools. "Over 90% of tools used on industry sites can be tethered using attachment points," says White.

Dropped object program

3M defines a dropped object as "any tool, material or object that has an opportunity to fall from elevation to a lower level, causing potential for damage to property, injury or death."

Don't wait until legislation is in place to develop a dropped object prevention program, says White. "Get ahead of the curve. We may as well start to prevent accidents now, rather than wait to be told that we have to."

Here are six essential components of a dropped object program:

  • Identify tasks that involve using tools, materials and objects at heights, including maintenance tasks that may be carried out occasionally. Ask for input from supervisors, workers, and the joint health and safety committee.
  • Conduct a risk assessment using this DROPS (Dropped Object Prevention Scheme) Calculator to map out the trajectory and impact of falling tools.
  • Determine and implement control methods. Primary controls for tools include lanyards/tethers, tool pouches, tool belts, tool holsters, spill control buckets, additional tool attachment points, etc. Secondary controls include floor/hole coverings, safety nets, tool canopies, controlled access zones (CAZ), toe boards, and PPE.
  • Develop specific procedures for each task that cover inspection, tethering, housekeeping, cleanup, and incident reporting.
  • Train all workers on hazards associated with falling objects and on your dropped object prevention program.
  • Monitor results and continuously improve.

How we can help

WSPS safety experts can help you

  • assess the risk of dropped tools, materials and equipment in your workplace,
  • develop and implement a dropped object protection program,
  • create a customized, onsite training program.

3M Personal Safety is a regular exhibitor at WSPS conferences and trade shows. Talk to a 3M specialist while you’re there or visit