Line-of-Fire Injuries

An analysis of the most recent five-year history of accidents and injuries reported by the IDOL/ICA Safety Partnership members shows workers caused 20 percent of reported injuries by putting themselves (or some part of their body) in the direct pathway of oncoming harm, or the line of fire. While most of these accidents result in crushed fingers and hands or broken toes, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 17 percent of U.S. workplace fatalities are the result of line-of-fire accidents.

When we hear about accidents – such as the one where a worker crushed his hand in a tri-axle truck tailgate that was swinging shut – we might be tempted to ask, “What were they thinking?” Nobody wants to get hurt, and we design most jobs to eliminate the risk of injury. So, how do workers get into these line-of-fire situations?

They don’t believe they are placing themselves in real danger. Sometimes workers who place themselves in the line of fire are making a decision based on imperfect information. They either assume that something is true when it is not, or they assume something is not true when it is.

They believe the time of exposure is short enough that nothing can happen to them. How many line-of-fire injuries are the result of thinking, “I’m only going to be in there for a second?” It’s a big temptation to take a risk when you believe that your probability of injury is directly proportional to the length of time you will be exposed to the hazard. Too few workers truly comprehend the dangers that some line-of-fire hazards pose irrespective of the length of exposure. If a worker contacts a sufficiently energized piece of equipment, he will be electrocuted, even if he touches the equipment for one second.

Familiarity causes people to be too comfortable. For most of us, the longer we work around a hazard or place ourselves in the line of fire without negative consequences, the less we respect the hazard’s ability to harm us. We convince ourselves that an activity is safer than it is. We think we won’t get hurt as long as we’re careful. But, placing ourselves in the line of fire is anything but being careful.

It is important to think through a task and find ways to prevent putting yourself in the line of fire.

The Hazards of Leading Edges – Part I: Roof Work

Falls are the number one cause of fatalities in construction. According to OSHA, more than 800 construction workers die every year while on the job. Because falls cause one in three construction worker deaths, it is important to understand the safety principles for managing this hazard, regardless of the specific type of construction.

The hazard associated with falling is at the point of the leading edge, which we define as the break of elevation between one surface and another. The leading edge can be along a roofline, where the sheer sides of a building descend to the ground. This line of demarcation is the point where an uncontrolled descent – otherwise known as a fall – can begin.

Recognizing the leading edge as the point of hazard is critical. Once we pinpoint the area of the hazard, we can take the most appropriate protective measures for the conditions.

In roofing work, the leading edge is where the side walls meet the roof. We must use some form of fall protection for any work at or within six feet of the leading edge. It may involve using a positive tie-off to an approved anchor point or performing work under the strict supervision of a safety monitor, provided that individual is a roofing craftsman and a competent person on the jobsite.

Workers on large, flat-roof projects have the option of utilizing a fall protection method we refer to as the safety monitor/warning line approach, which entails establishing a warning line at a point that is six feet from the leading edge. This warning line must be at least 19 inches high and supported on stanchions that require at least 20 pounds of force to knock over. The line itself must be highly visible. You don’t need an additional fall protection system when workers are within this warning line.

When performing work outside of the warning line – that is, between the warning line and the leading edge – a safety monitor must directly supervise workers to ensure against any action that may result in a worker stepping, tripping and/or falling over the edge. The safety monitor may not engage in any other activity beyond watching and managing the safety of other workers who are between the warning line and the leading edge. All workers must be within the eyesight and voice command of the designated safety monitor.

The safety monitor/warning line system utilized during actual roofing work is one of the few situations where we can approach fall protection without using the more demanding system of using a positive tie-off to an approved anchor point.

In Part II of this Toolbox Talk, we will discuss the leading edge in other types of construction work.