Safety professionals know that workers shouldn’t stand under, or even near, elevated loads that are being carried by equipment.
Experienced workers typically know better, too, but they can still have momentary lapses of judgment that put them in extreme danger. New employees may have no idea what sort of danger they’re in when they get too close to an elevated load.
What’s the best way to remind workers about this hazard? Training them that this is truly a life or death situation and reminding them that their bodies don’t stand a chance against loads that weigh thousands of pounds.
Here are two incidents involving workers who died when elevated loads fell on them, followed by four tips to help employees avoid having it happen to them.
Mechanic killed when crane’s hoist rope is severed
On Oct. 1, 2022, Darren Miller, a mechanic at the RJ Valente Grafton Quarry surface limestone mine in New York, died when he was struck by the overhaul hook ball on a crane being used to lift an engine.
Miller was working with the mine manager, Anthony Valente, to install the engine into a haul truck. Valente operated the crane, even though he had never been trained on the equipment, while Miller signaled him from the ground. The crane, which was tagged “out of service,” had known mechanical problems and several safety overrides were in effect to allow it to be used.
Guided by Miller, Valente raised the engine and moved it slowly into place with the crane. When the engine was above the truck’s engine compartment, Miller climbed up onto the truck frame behind the engine compartment and out of Valente’s line of sight. Valente raised the engine again to align it with the engine mounts. At one point, Miller yelled, “we’re almost there.”
Miller gave Valente the hand signal to move the crane’s boom. When Valente made this adjustment, the overhaul hook ball was pulled up into the sheave, severing the hoist rope. The overhaul hook ball fell and struck Miller, killing him.
Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators found that one of the root causes of the incident was that the mine operator failed to ensure that Miller stayed clear of suspended loads while replacing the engine.
Warehouse ‘spotter’ dies when double-stacked pallet falls on him
On May 13, 2022, a 39-year-old worker at a California warehouse was acting as a spotter for a forklift operator who was moving pallets of cased bottled water. The pallets were shrink wrapped and double stacked. The double stack stood almost 10 feet high.
When the forklift operator attempted to remove the top pallet the forks made contact with the pallet, causing it to move and tilt backward slightly. The forklift operator pulled the forks out to reposition as the spotter moved behind the pallet, out of the operator’s line of sight.
As the forklift operator reinserted the forks, the cased water on the top pallet shifted against the shrink wrap, causing it to give way. The cased water tumbled onto the spotter.
Because the forklift operator didn’t realize the spotter had been behind the pallet, it took him a few minutes to realize the spotter was buried under the cases of bottled water. The forklift operator and several co-workers uncovered the spotter, who was unresponsive but breathing. They moved him away from the pallets and called 9-1-1.
Paramedics arrived but were unable to revive the spotter, who died from his injuries.
To avoid similar incidents, employers should:
1. Establish exclusion zones
Exclusion zones should be established around the lift equipment and employees should be trained to stay outside of the zones at all times, according to a California Fatality Assessment & Control Evaluation program investigation report on the warehouse incident.
The exclusion zone established by the employer following the warehouse incident was defined as 10 feet in the direction the lift equipment is moving and four feet on all other sides.
This exclusion zone rule should be enforced by supervisors. This is especially important with inexperienced staff who may not realize the performance expectations associated with safety requirements.
In both incidents, if the victims hadn’t been standing so close to the raised loads, their deaths would likely have been prevented.
2. Ensure that operators, spotters maintain line of sight
Employees working as spotters or guides around lift equipment should position themselves to maintain line of sight with the operator.
Both incidents involved equipment operators and workers on foot who failed to maintain line of sight with each other. If line of sight is broken, it’s the responsibility of the equipment operator to warn the worker on foot and then re-establish line of sight.
In the warehouse incident, the forklift operator lost sight of the spotter but didn’t call out or attempt to locate him prior to lifting the unstable pallet. In this situation, the forklift operator was trying to lift an unbalanced load and since it was a problematic lift, it would be conceivable that a spotter would approach the load to survey it and provide the operator information to assist.
An experienced operator would typically anticipate this and call out, wait for the spotter to respond and get clear of the load, then make the lift.
If the equipment operators in both incidents had been aware of the victims’ locations and instructed them to move, the fatalities may have been avoided.
3. Create standards for correcting unstable loads
Employers should have a written standard covering what to do with unstable or unbalanced loads.
This means doing more than simply pointing out that unstable loads are hazardous and need to be handled with care. Employees need to be told specifically how to handle these situations. This is especially true in warehouse operations where stacked pallets are handled.
A procedure for correcting unstable loads should tell workers that they:
- shouldn’t attempt to move the unstable load once they’ve encountered it
- should obtain assistance from one or more co-workers
- should manually break down product stacked on an unstable pallet and either use a hand truck to move it to its destination or stack it onto a new pallet, or
- should gently lower the load and reassess the situation for a safer way to move the object.
In warehouses, consider the following when palletizing stock to maximize pallet load stability:
- use as much of the pallet space as possible without having product overhang the edges
- limit pallet weight, keeping in mind that the standard wooden pallet has a maximum load capacity of 2,500 pounds
- distribute weight as evenly as possible with the heavier product kept as close to the pallet deck
- keep stack heights low enough that forklift operators can see over the top of the pallet and that it will fit into storage racks, keeping in mind that the average pallet height in most warehouses is about 60 inches, and
- secure product firmly to the pallet using plastic shrink wrap to cover the product and all four corners of the pallet.
4. Provide thorough training for operators, pedestrians
Equipment operators aren’t born with the innate ability to use powered industrial trucks. The same can be said for employees working on foot around heavy equipment: They aren’t born with the knowledge of how to stay safe while being in close proximity to such vehicles.
Both equipment operators and the pedestrians working around them need to be trained properly on how to work safely in regard to elevated loads, among other things.