Because of the nature of their occupation, workers in heavy industries like construction and oil and gas are exposed to hazardous conditions in their workplace. Yet with all the potentially dangerous elements that surround them, industrial workers are most susceptible to injuries from an unlikely source ‒ dropped objects. Because of this, dropped object prevention has become an extremely important field of study in occupational safety.
What Are Dropped Objects?
Any industry that requires operational tasks to be carried out from a certain height are at risk for potential dropped objects. With drilling rigs and gantry cranes rising hundreds of feet above the ground or deck, people working on or around this equipment need to be particularly aware of the dangers that dropped objects present.
The technical definition of a dropped object is “any object that falls from its previous static position under its own weight.” Experts separate dropped objects into two categories:
- Static dropped objects are those that fall from a previous position under their own weight without any applied force. This can happen when objects are dislodged from their secure position by such occurrences as vibration or corrosion.
- Dynamic dropped objects fall from their previous position because of external or applied force. This can happen when an object is dislodged via a collision of equipment, unsecured items getting caught on various surfaces or even tools falling out of workers’ hands or tool belt.
There are multiple factors that can cause dropped objects, from wind and mechanical motions to gravity simply winning out over inertia. However, upwards of 80% or more of all hazardous incidents can be attributed to human factors. Human error is perhaps the most prominent reason that objects are dropped. Lack of awareness, inadequate equipment and mishandling of materials can all result in dropped objects.
Poor planning can also cause objects to fall. If a particular piece of equipment is placed too closely to another machine, their parts could collide and be dislodged. In some cases, poorly maintained hardware can lead to dropped objects like loose bolts or corroded metal. Because industrial work sites are hives of heavy activity, stacked items can become hazardous if they’re left unsecured and placed near ledges or on equipment rising above the hand rail.
While it’s not uncommon for whole pieces of equipment to fall from a great height, the most common dropped objects are usually miniscule items such as hand tools, machine debris and other smaller pieces of equipment. While they may seem inconsequential, the force of gravity can turn even the most innocuous item into a dangerous projectile.
How Dangerous Are Dropped Objects?
A dropped object is an occupational hazard that can not only cause serious injuries but also fatalities. In fact, it is listed as one of the top three causes of fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas industry, just behind being struck by a moving vehicle and falling from a great height. In 2016, 93 workers lost their lives due to being struck by dropped objects.
The danger of a dropped object is a matter of physics – the destructive nature of a dropped object increases significantly as weight increases and the greater the distance of its fall (Newton's second law of motion: F=ma).
To calculate it, occupational safety experts created the dropped object calculator:
The calculator measures the mass of an object in relation to the height from which it has fallen to determine the amount of damage it can cause. The calculator also takes into account personal protective equipment (PPE) such as hard hats and work boots. But even with safety equipment, dropped objects can still cause severe damage.
As the calculator indicates, even a relatively light item weighing one kilogram can cause major injury if dropped from a relatively low distance of nine meters off the ground, with a fatality possibly occurring if the object is dropped at around 20 meters. Although this calculator only gives a rough estimation of the damage a dropped object can cause, it still eliminates a majority of the guesswork in determining possible outcomes of hazardous situations involving falling objects.
Workers who sustain even minor injuries can cause operations to come to a grinding halt, leading to revenue loss and delayed projects– not to mention the demoralizing effect on the crew. This is why dropped objects are heavily considered during risk assessment activities and pre-planning of production processes.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Dropped Objects?
The most important facts to remember in dropped object prevention are preparation, awareness and equipment.
Before workers enter an oil and gas workplace, companies should already know where problem areas are and have an action plan to prevent dropped objects. More than that, companies should create a culture of safety by encouraging workers to always be mindful of their equipment and to always be aware of where things are.
The “look up and live” mantra is a useful reminder for workers to keep out from under overhead loads. It does not address issues related to smaller dropped objects, however. Keeping employees mindful of where they put tools and equipment is part of a continuous training regimen that is related to hand safety. It also keeps them mindful of where they place their hands while working on equipment.
Constant communication among everyone on a job site – from managers and administrators to fabricators and laborers – can do a lot to help prevent hazardous situations from occurring. Regular preventive maintenance on all machinery should likewise be practiced, as it reduces the chances of loose debris or other moving parts being dislodged during operations.
Another useful exercise to prevent dropped objects is regular hazard hunts. Involving personnel from different departments to inspect parts of the facilities they don’t work in on a regular basis brings in fresh eyes to help catch high-risk potential before an incident happens. This exercise takes place outside of their regular work function so they can focus on identifying hazards.
Depending on the size of an operation, it is also smart to adopt the practice of formal dropped object inspections . There are several companies that perform these inspections as a third-party operator. They are trained to identify and remove or repair potential dropped objects.
Preparation and awareness are only effective if the right tools are in use. Proper equipment goes a long way to ensuring safety in a workplace. When it comes to safety, cost should only be a secondary driver. All personnel should be given task-specific tools and specialty kits that are customized for working at heights. Sufficient PPE should also be mandatory. This should include tethered tools, chin straps and lanyards for hardhats, equipment logs (what goes up must come down), the right gloves to allow proper dexterity as well as fall protection so they don’t become a dropped object themselves.
Dropped object prevention greatly increases workplace safety, which in turn helps workers do their jobs more efficiently, ultimately leading to the optimum performance of operations.
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