My name is John Paul Jones and I am the Vice President of training for Safety LMSystems. Based in San Antonio, TX, Safety LMSystems offers advanced training for the Telecommunications Tower and Wind energy industries.
I have been in the Telecommunications Tower industry since I was 16 years old; at age 51 that puts me at 35 years of industry experience, 15 of those as a Senior Fall protection & Rescue instructor. In those 35 years I have lost too many friends to tragic falls due to thoughtless mistakes and senseless errors in judgment.
I have also stood stunned at the base of the tower when one of my best friends slammed into the ground inches from my boot. Believe me when I say this: You NEVER forget the sound of a human body hitting the ground from an 80’ fall, especially when it was your buddy’s. The good part is that luckily he is alive and well and probably chasing wahine’s in Hawaii right now.
The thing that baffled me the most was that when we rendered First Aid my friend still had his rope grab/energy absorber connected to the vertical lifeline. Everything seemed to be in perfect mechanical working condition and properly connected to his harness. No matter how we tried to make it malfunction it would not.
After a long two year investigation with many experts from HIOSH (Hawaii), OSHA, and the equipment manufacturers that included every piece of fall protection from the accident being tested in OSHA’s main laboratory, it was determined that there was no equipment malfunction that caused this young man to hit the ground. So what happened?
The rest of the story goes like this,
In 1992 we were down rigging a new Pirod 200’ SS that we had just stacked with a gin pole on a mountain top in Hawaii. As typical Mountains in the Pacific go, they are prone to strong and sudden storms resulting from squall lines building from the windward side of the slope. This happened to us at approximately 9:30AM with three men up the tower on rope grabs and vertical lifelines. With winds gusting in the 40-50 MPH range the men were having a difficult time climbing down due to the rope grabs locking up because the lifelines were being blown away from them.
One man took his time and patiently climbed down 3’ feet at a time, hooking and un-hooking as he moved his grab down the rope. The second man simply un-hooked his grab from the rope and free-climbed down. I had just finished securing the hoist line and gin pole as the second man reached the ground. I went to the base of the tower to meet the men. The last man climbing down was having extreme difficulty with his rope grab system due to the fact he was on the far side of the tower and his rope was bellying out away from him so much. Even though the ropes were tensioned properly, at 40-50 MPH they were still a problem. The last man down and I tried to help out by adding tension to the rope. A few seconds later our friend was a gasping shell of a man at our feet.
OSHA was very thorough during the investigation and due to the fact that we had performed all of the steps necessary at the time to be compliant with the current training standard they only issued us a verbal reprimand and training/documentation violation. Although the crew had just been through our company’s 2 day fall protection course (which at the time was one of the best in the world) and had all been trained in the generic use of rope grabs and vertical lifeline systems, we had not detailed the training right down to the specific make and model of rope and grab.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that my friend explained what he thought had happened to him during that ill fated climb down. He admits that he got so frustrated with the rope grab hanging up that he reached out and grabbed the rope grab and released it by gripping it in the palm of his hand and squeezing. He said he was trying to do what he was taught by staying connected to the system. The problem was that he then started ”One-Handing” the ladder(Tower Leg) while holding his rope grab open in the other hand. He eventually missed a rung and fell. He spun down his own rope with his rope grab in his hand.
In an extreme panic situation, the human body tenses every muscle as if being electrically shocked. There was no way he could have let go of the rope grab and let the system stop the fall.
In a final note, it is very important that when you receive training that you take that training back to your company and apply it to your company’s safety plan, manual, and policy. This training needs to be device specific and be very well documented. Have every employee sign off on the training for that specific device. I also recommend that companies standardize equipment; everyone uses the same type and brand of equipment.
VP Training, Safety LMSystems