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Self sufficient

By Linda Johnson

In December 2013, a huge fire broke out in a four-storey apartment building under construction in downtown Kingston, Ont. The fire left a crane operator trapped at the top of a crane. According to witnesses, the fire, one of the largest in the city’s history, grew quickly and filled the air with heavy, black smoke.

A search-and-rescue helicopter was dispatched from the nearby military base, CFB Trenton. As it hovered over the blackened crane, a rescue technician lowered himself to the edge of the crane, attached himself to the operator and the two were pulled up to safety. The operator sustained burns to parts of his body and spent several months in hospital.

Sean Vernon-Scott, director of operations at London, Ont.-based Rubicon Safety, says the operator could have been away from the fire much faster if he had had a self-rescue device.

“The operator was finally rescued — that was a positive — but if there had been a self-rescue device, that rescue would have taken anywhere from three to 10 minutes, versus about two hours,” he says, adding they were lucky the base was close. “If it hadn’t been, the individual would have burned to death.”

Where workers are working at height, a self-rescue device should be part of the emergency plan: It can prevent injuries and, sometimes, save a worker’s life. This is particularly true where workers are working alone; a fallen worker who has to remain suspended for a long time can suffer serious long-term health effects and may sustain suspension trauma. Where workers have a self-rescue device and know how to use it, they have a quick means of getting safely to the ground.

While self-rescue devices are not specifically required by provincial occupational health and safety law, employers are required to have a rescue plan for workers at height. Regulations also generally state that fall protection plans must include procedures for rescuing workers who have fallen and are suspended.

“In the wind industry, for example, they’re required to have an adequate rescue plan to get those workers out of the tower and to the ground so that EMS or fire can assist,” Vernon-Scott says. “Other groups, too, as in the construction industry or tower crane, are required if an operator has a heart attack or a fall to be able to bring that operator down to where first response can do their rescue.”

Controlled descent devices are used most commonly by workers who work in the hydro, electrical, telecom and wind generation industries and work on tower cranes, bucket trucks and power lines.

The CSA Z259.2.3 Descent Devices standard defines a descent control device as “a device that is designed and intended to be used and operated by one person for personal descent or to lower another person from an elevation.”

A basic self-rescue device consists of the rescue device itself (usually made of aluminum, metal or plastic), two carabineers (a rectangular metal loop with a spring-loaded gate) and a length of rope. The device is attached to an anchor point: a beam of a building or tower, for example. With some manual devices, too, the worker may have to adjust the length of rope during descent to allow for her body weight. The parts generally come in a bag and the kit is stored near the worker.

Another type of device includes a rescue ladder. It is designed for the self- or assisted-rescue of fallen workers at significant heights, and may be more suited to the wind generation industry.

Yet another new device attaches to the person’s harness and allows him to perform controlled descent from a suspended position.

“This allows people to work independently and still be rescued from height should they fall or should they experience some sort of difficulty that prevents them from working. For example, a worker hurts an arm or leg while suspended and needs to get down. Or, a worker suffers a heart attack, is still aware and needs to lower himself to the ground,” says John Fuke, technical services manager at Mississauga, Ont.-based 3M/Capital Safety.

According to CSA Z259.2.3, there are six basic designs of self-rescue devices that have been deemed acceptable for the workplace. The standard does not stipulate employers should buy devices approved by the CSA. However, some provincial regulations do stipulate the devices must be approved by the CSA or another accredited testing organization.

Greg Small, vice-chairperson, CSA fall protection committee and chief engineer at Calgary-based High Engineering, says there is a lot of variation ?in the performance of self-rescue devices. One ?main differentiator is whether the device is manual or automatic.

“Some of them will automatically lower you to the ground. Some are very manual; in other words, if the operator makes a mistake, they’re going to fall. With the ones that are completely automatic, you hook yourself up and step out into space and let the machine take you to the ground level,” he says. “The problem with those comes if your landing area is not safe. For instance, if a worker on a bridge has an incident, he falls off and he’s hanging over traffic, we don’t want something that automatically lowers him into moving traffic.”

However, he adds, where there is a safe landing area, the completely automatic devices are a good solution.

With manual devices, Small says, the worker has to pull on a lever or operate something to lower herself. Manual devices are divided into two categories: those that have automatic lock-off features and those that do not. The best ones, Small adds, are the ones that have the automatic lock-off features because if the person lets go, the device will stop his descent. Alternatively, if the worker panics and starts clenching or pulling the handle down, it will also halt the descent.

“There have been incidents where somebody starts to lower themselves and then they get going too fast. And if you get going too fast, your automatic reaction might not be to ease off on the lever. You might just pull even harder, thinking of it as a braking device: you squeeze the brakes on your bicycle. So (this automated stop) is to try and prevent the panic situation where you’re operating it in the wrong way,” he says.

Ease of use and ease of rigging are other considerations. Some devices come pre-rigged in the bag. With others, the user has to insert the rope in a very special way for it to operate properly.

“In a rescue situation, it’s not a good idea to have equipment that users require a lot of skill to operate safely and properly,” Small says. “You want to have everything pre-rigged. You want to have it as simple as possible and you want the device to look after as many as possible of the mistakes that a user could make.”

At Regina-based SaskPower, about 500 power linemen, journeymen, apprentices and district operators are trained and equipped to use self-rescue devices, says Shaun Snell, PLT (power line technician) training specialist. Because power line technicians use aerial devices (bucket trucks), they must by ?law have a way to extricate themselves if something goes wrong; if the power to the aerial boom is lost, for example.

SaskPower workers are currently using two types of devices for rescue from a bucket. The most common one is auto-locking, which comes pre-assembled in the bag and cannot be taken apart. There are four holes in the main body and the rope is woven through the holes.

To use it, the operator connects the carabineer attached to the rope to an anchor point on the bucket and connects himself to the bottom carabineer on the device. The operator squeezes the handle to descend. The harder the handle is squeezed, the faster the descent will be. When the handle is released, the descent will stop.

“There’s no mistaking how to use it. The operator won’t have any problem as long as he has it pointed the right way and the rope’s anchored to the bucket. Then he’s hooked into the bottom eye on this thing, and down he goes. You can’t take it apart and weave it incorrectly,” Snell says.

The other device in play at SaskPower is taken apart to be used. It consists of an internal shaft with flighting on it, like an auger-type flighting, and an outer cover. The operator opens the outer cover, wraps the rope around the flighting and then replaces the cover.

Workers need to be properly trained on how to use a self-rescue device, so they are prepared for the worst. At SaskPower, the power line technician level 1 course starts with the “knowledge” section of training, which deals with bucket trucks, including emergency procedures and self-rescue. In the classroom, apprentices examine actual harnesses and self-rescue devices and they’re instructed on how to use the descent devices.

After new operators have completed 16 hours of operating an aerial lift, they go through a practical skills check, which requires them to lower themselves on the device.

“At least once a year all personnel have to practise this. We have quarterly safety meetings in the line trade and (the skill tests) are usually done and documented at one of these meetings,” Snell says.

Companies should have a competent person check descent devices according to the manufacturer’s requirements, Fuke says.

“Different manufacturers stipulate different periods of time. Some of the devices have to be re-certified on an annual or multi-year basis.”

At SaskPower, Snell says, the device is inspected pre-use to make sure it is not damaged. Equipment is also inspected and documented annually by the utility’s occupational safety committee or safety co-ordinators, while its power plants bring in outside companies to do the inspections.

Following the fire in Kingston, the Ontario Ministry of Labour laid 22 charges against the construction company and developer of the site. One charge cited their “failure to ensure an adequate means of egress (exit plan) was provided from a work area to permit the evacuation of workers during an emergency.”

While he was still recovering in hospital and on painkillers, crane operator Adam Jastrzebski, who had worked on construction cranes for 46 years, said he was not going to risk a similar emergency.

“I was shaking and frozen on one side, it was a crazy situation,” he told the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper. “I’m retired from that.”

[em]Linda Johnson is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of COS. 


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