Pack Your Own Parachute

I’m about four months old as a first term electrician apprentice and so far, I’ve experienced six different job sites and at least 18 fellow electricians (most of whom are experienced journeywomen/journeymen). I’m grateful to my shop’s construction manager for shifting me around like this because I’m getting a good taste of work styles, material lay-out and personality types. Also, I get really nervous when arriving to a new job and new crew and being moved around like this has helped me relax and gain confidence when jumping into a new site.

Most journeymen (journeywomen) have been really generous with their advice.  One thing I hear frequently – and it surprises me – is, “You are responsible for your own safety!”  Statements like this are usually followed with hypothetical situations based on experience: a contractor might want to cut corners or get a task done quickly, safety protocol is wiggled around (just for this ONE instance), and somebody ends up getting hurt. Safety culture has changed – and this is another thing I hear frequently from the old-timers. Being responsible for my own safety means knowing the OSHA and job specification standards and being willing to resist a direct order. My whole work crew caught the wrath of a general foreman several weeks ago over the wrong type of fall protection. We were lucky nobody got hurt and we weren’t removed from the job.

It all started when we were trying to access a place that could have been a four foot reach down, but turned out to be a 25 foot climb up. Picture a huge, drained pool (25 feet deep) surrounded by a zoo enclosure fence. We needed to install conduit at the upper part of the basin and rather than reaching down and through the fence, we were forced to enter the basin, establish a secured extension ladder and reach up. Because our feet were greater than six feet off the ground, we were obliged to wear a harness and securely tie to something. The quandary and creative work around bubbled up because there wasn’t much to use as a tie off point. According to OSHA, “Falls are among the most common causes of serious work-related injuries and deaths.” Additionally, this job site had its own safety orientation (many sites and general contractors do this) and we had all agreed upon a protocol of being harnessed/tied off when over six feet in elevation. It would have been better to have a scissor lift or a scaffold to reach our work point, but the schedules between the trades were badly muddled. This left no driving path for a scissor lift because it was blocked by another trade’s work product. Scaffolds were out of the question; therefore, we rigged a tie off point and tried our best to get our job done. Technically, tie off points should be rated and tested to sustain a 5,000 pound load. That is: you should be able to hang a Volkswagen bug from it. Our makeshift tie off point would probably crumple if somebody tried to hang a VW from it – but then again, we wouldn’t be up there for long, would we? It looked unlikely that the general contractor would install a tested/rated anchor point.

The safety inspector saw what we’d done and picked it apart one factor at a time. He seemed most upset at the rope with clips installed on each end (this is what we were using to attach our harnesses to the anchor point). “Save it for your quads or your Jeep!” he said with a scowl on his face. In reality, if one of our crew had fallen from the ladder while tied in with that rope, it would have compounded an injury because there would have been too great a distance of free fall with no shock absorption. We discussed, then remedied what we could: substituting a self-retracting lifeline (a “yo-yo”), and agreeing upon the least of the shoddy anchor points. The discussion lost us about 30 minutes of work time and we were eager to get our conduit installed so we could get the hell out of the drained basin.

All resolved, right? About forty minutes later, while on break, a man in a clean plaid shirt flew down the stairs of the general trailer and started yelling. “Why am I getting calls from the safety officer about you?!” We tried to explain that the situation was old news: it had been resolved. He didn’t hear us over his continued yelling. “Don’t you have your fall protection cards?!” I don’t think there is such thing as a specific fall protection certification:  for people like me, awareness of fall prevention and protection was given in a 10 hour general safety class about four months ago. Later in my career, I will have a 30 hour safety certification – but on a variety of safety topics.

After doing some research, I see our state has its own supplemental OSHA rules: the document pertaining to fall prevention is 84 pages long. I’m relieved I was a mere bystander in all this: I got to wear a yo-yo after we had remedied our access point but I was off the hook as far as planning and implementation goes. The next time I need to be anywhere near six feet off the ground, I know the specific type of fall protection and fall prevention to use (I prefer the latter). Analyzing and questioning situations within a job site is expected. At this point, I think blithely following what somebody else is doing is not a path I want to hang my VW upon!

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