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Is MRO Dropping The Ball on Drop-Prevention Safety?

Aircraft maintenance providers are showing reticence to adopt tool-drop prevention systems despite growing proof of safety risks.

Printed headline: Dropping the Ball on Safety


Safety is considered paramount in the aviation industry, but do the required standards to keep maintenance staff safe behind the scenes match those applied to keeping aircraft flying safely? Based on his time spent in the hangars of airlines and MROs, Scott Steward, Snap-on Industrial’s business development manager for aerospace and aviation, sees one area where worker safety is falling short.

According to Steward, he often sees MRO operations where employees working at height are secured with a safety harness, but their tools are not tethered—even when as high as 40 ft. from the ground. Tools dropping from this height, he says, can not only damage the aluminum body of an aircraft but potentially injure or even kill workers on the ground.

Inside MRO reached out to a variety of MROs, airlines and OEMs to find out if they were using tool-drop prevention systems. All said they were not using such systems or declined to comment.

“A lot of times, what I see in the aviation world is [the mindset of], ‘It hasn’t happened yet, so maybe we don’t have to prepare for it or have a program to prevent it . . . because we don’t have a history of it happening,’ but that’s kind of like having car insurance—you may never have a car accident, but you have it so that just in case something happens, you’re covered,” Steward says.

Statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate the issue is a very real threat. Fall-protection violations—which include both people and tools—topped OSHA’s list of most-cited violations in 2018. BLS’ most recent statistics show that there were nearly 46,000 incidents of workers being struck by falling objects or equipment in 2017—1,490 of which were caused by falling hand tools. Although the agency does not track data specific to the aviation industry, the incidents related to falling hand tools in 2011-17 ranged from 1,160 to 1,620 per year.

While OSHA requires employers to ensure that workers wear head protection and use systems such as guard rails, screens or canopy structures to prevent objects from falling, the only standard currently required for tethering tools is for workers using rope—descent systems. Even with safety equipment like hard hats and guard rails, the situation isn’t always clear-cut.

According to John Ficcadenti, product manager for Snap-on’s Tools at Height product lines, hand tools could actually go through a hard hat if dropped from sufficient height. “Another thing that’s critical to understand is how far away from the drop location the object can end up bouncing and strike someone,” he says.

Aside from potential injury or death, the consequences of a dropped tool could range from lost productivity—when a tool bouncing off scaffolding flies across the floor and employees have to climb down from a high position and spend time searching for it—to potentially expensive damage to aircraft.

Steward points to an episode he witnessed where a contracted employee at a helicopter expo dropped an adjustable wrench while hanging a sign in the display area from a height of about 40-50 ft., causing damage to the blade of a helicopter. “That blade cost a considerable amount of money to repair, but that was just the start of the problem,” he explains. Due to the damage, the helicopter—which had been borrowed from an OEM for the expo—could not be flown back to the OEM for repair, so a new blade had to be sent to the site before repairs could be made. “The product to prevent that from happening costs less than $15,” Steward adds.

Snap-on’s tethered tool systems “cover just about everything under the Sun,” Ficcadenti says. The company works with customers to design belts for employees with attachment points for the specific types of tools they use, which the worker can then put on easily for working at height.

“As you can imagine, when you tether any type of tool, you end up losing some portion of either accessibility or application in that tool because you are now tied to something,” explains Ficcadenti. “Our engineers look at those tools and prescribe the attachment point that would work best for that tool so that the end user can ultimately get the most amount of productivity out of that tool while they’re working at height.”

Similar hand-tool drop-prevention systems are available from companies such as 3M and Ergodyne, which recently worked with the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop the American National Standard for Dropped-Object Prevention Solutions, establishing minimum design, performance and labeling requirements for tool-tethering systems. The standard requires dropped-object prevention programs to undergo dynamic drop testing to be found fit for use.

Ficcadenti stresses that programs meeting the ANSI/ISEA 121-2018 standard are necessary, since cobbled-together solutions created by industrial companies themselves can be ineffective due to lack of expertise. “We have a myriad of ‘worst practices’ on scenarios that we’ve seen over the years,” he says, citing examples of companies attaching tools using tape, which is prone to wear and tear.

Another issue Ficcadenti has noticed is general confusion about the difference between fall protection—which focuses on individual workers and is already highly regulated—and drop prevention, which applies to objects like tools. While OSHA says it may consider industry standards such as ANSI/ISEA 121-2018 for hazard-abatement purposes, Ficcadenti says that there are not really any mandates related to drop prevention for tools.

“We strongly advocate for one and think there will be one coming soon,” he says, adding that other industries—such as oil and gas—require tools to be tethered at heights as low as 4 ft. Additionally, Steward says aviation-related industries such as space and defense have industry standards “pretty much across the board” covering tool-drop prevention, given previous incidents where costly damage was incurred.

To help mitigate the lack of knowledge about tool-drop prevention in industry, Snap-on established its Tools at Height certification program three years ago. The program is designed to help both students and incumbent or transitioning workforce understand potential safety risks and how to best implement these systems in the field. One of the most recent customers to adopt the certification program is Flight Works Alabama, an Airbus project with the state of Alabama to develop the aerospace workforce in the state. Ficcadenti says the program is now being adopted within multiple industry segments. 

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