heightsWhen you look at OSHA’s most recent list of the top ten most frequently cited violations, three of the ten (and two of the top three) have something in common: they involve injuries related to overhead work. Specifically, the #1 violation involves fall protection, #3 relates to scaffolding, and #7 involves ladders.

When we speak of overhead work, we’re actually referring to work that takes place above other workers and work that’s being performed with arms raised above a worker’s head. In this article, we’ll examine both of those situations,

Work that’s above others
In the best possible scenario, work would never take place in situations where someone else is working below. However, the reality is that it can happen on a worksite, whether deliberately or unknowingly.

Anytime someone is working above someone else, there is the possibility that objects may be dropped. That object may be a tool, something that is being worked on, or even debris. If the object falls on a vehicle or piece of equipment, it may cause significant damage. But if it falls on another worker, serious injury may be the result.

A simple approach is to say that those who are working above others should be careful with how they handle tools and equipment, so they’re less likely to drop anything. However, nobody intends to drop objects. That’s why we refer to those situations as accidents. It’s also why workers should take specific steps to reduce the potential for those accidents, and to limit the possible damage.

The first step is to ensure that people who are working below are aware of the work that’s happening above them and are taking adequate precautions. For example, the area beneath the work can be marked off with caution tape, barricades, and signs that alert workers to the potential for falling objects.

If a task that’s being performed overhead will take only a short time, the worker who is performing that task or that worker’s supervisor should personally inform those who will be working below so that they have a heightened sense of awareness.

Instead of carrying tools and materials up a ladder or in one’s pockets, it’s usually safer to place them in buckets or other containers attached to a lift line or winch. Make sure the items being raised are balanced properly and secured in such a way that they’re not likely to tip over or slip out on the journey.

While working, make sure that materials and tools are kept away from the edges of scaffolding or other raised surfaces, so they’re less likely to fall if bumped or dislodged. If prolonged work is being performed on a raised surface, toe boards, screens, or similar protection will reduce the chances of objects being knocked off. Tools or materials that are no longer needed should not be stored on the raised surface.

Falling objects don’t always fall from scaffolds or ladders. Poorly stacked materials such as pallets or boxes can easily tumble down if bumped. Items that are loaded improperly on a lift truck or other equipment can also fall. The best prevention is to follow proper stacking procedures and to avoid stacking beyond safe heights. In addition, anytime there is a potential for falling objects, even from a fairly low height, hardhats are a must.

Objects can also fall when they slip out of the hands of a worker carrying them, or when someone doesn’t realize how heavy the object may be and fails to lift it properly. That type of fall does not involve a great distance, but can easily cause severe injury to feet and toes. The same thing can happen if a worker props a component or piece of equipment against the wall, but doesn’t secure it. Another worker bumps into the object, and it falls on his feet. This type of injury underscores the value of safety shoes.

Working above your head
One of the most dangerous overhead hazards is also one of the most common: electrical wiring and power lines. If a ladder, pipe, or other object that can conduct electricity comes in contact with an energized power line (or even an improperly grounded light fixture), electric shock, serious burns, and fires can result. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the location of all overhead electrical lines on a worksite (as well as other potential utility hazards such as steam and pressurized water lines).

Even when there are no visible hazards overhead, the act of reaching up can lead to injuries, particularly when performed repeatedly. Work that involves raising arms above shoulder level can cause tears and sprains, or can lead to conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis, and bursitis. When workers tilt their heads back for a long period of time, they place additional strain on the neck and shoulders, which can lead to tightness, pain, and even injury in those areas. If the work is being performed with heavy tools, or if the worksite forces the worker to twist to be able access areas, the potential for injuries increases.

Obviously, reducing the amount of time spent working with the arms above the head reduces the possibility of injury. Performing stretching exercises before and during work and taking frequent breaks may limit the amount of damage. Often, workers can vary their methods, reposition themselves, or use different types of tools to reduce the amount of strain on the body.

Awareness of the potential for injury is the first step. Supervisors and safety personnel can help by educating workers about the hazards of overhead work and offering sensible strategies to reduce the strain. Sometimes, the simplest actions can have the greatest effects.