Published on: September 12, 2023
Any environment that requires work to be routinely conducted at a height over four feet can be hazardous. However, when the work at height is carried out within the noisy, hot, and busy operations of sawmills and paper mills, plant-wide hazards are sometimes difficult to overcome. Even common slips, trips, and falls within these environments can have devastating effects on lives and livelihoods.
Sawmills and paper mills had a combined total of over 4900 non-fatal workplace accidents in 2020 according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the leading causes of fatal accidents were falls and contact with objects and equipment…powerful machines designed to process timber.
Although no two sawmills or paper mills are identical, even within the same company, there is always a clear line of sight as to how to develop a comprehensive fall safety program. Properly addressing fall risks and hazards requires a facility-specific process. Safety audits require a careful evaluation of work at height, a clear understanding of risks & fall hazards, and a grasp of the standards & best practices for solutions that are proven to mitigate the risks that are discovered.
Providing effective and compliant fall protection within sawmills and paper mills often requires the aid of a competent and qualified fall protection engineer and will result in establishing a mix of the appropriate personal protection equipment, engineered systems, and safety training programs.
This article examines the most common fall hazards and safety solutions that are used to bring certain sawmill and paper mill work at height tasks into compliance and lead to safer, more productive work.
FALL HAZARDS COMMON TO SAWMILLS
Even when equipment is used properly, with safeguards and systems in place, such as those designed to control hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), nearly every major stage of the lumber manufacturing process qualifies as a hazard area. Inadequate safety or machine misuse leads to lacerations, amputations, severed fingers, and blindness. When it comes to risk of falling, some of the more hazardous operations include:
Handling & Processing the Raw Material
One of the most hazardous operations within a sawmill is the intake of raw material for rough sorting, debarking, sawing, and sorting. Moving logs from trailers and railcars and the process immediately following this, exposes workers to equipment that has the potential to inflict serious permanent or deadly bodily injury. Specific risk factors are when workers need to access uneven and unstable working walking surfaces and deal with the challenges of heat, cold and inclement weather in exterior operations.
Drying, Storing, and Loading the Finished Product
Depending on the design of the facility, the stacking, drying, packaging, and storage stages of the line can be hazardous when requires workers to access elevated surfaces. The final loading & delivery process exposes workers to heavy raw materials and cumbersome final products that are sometimes a challenge to manipulate. Much like the jobs required at intake of raw materials, the final stages of the process sometimes require workers to navigate uneven, unstable, rough working and walking surfaces.
FALL HAZARDS COMMON TO PAPER MILLS
Although the unloading of raw materials and loading of the final product within paper mills is very similar to lumber mills, the material handling requirements within paper mills require many more steps to produce a final product than that of lumber facilities. From raw material storage, through stock preparation and papermaking, to finished roll storage…machine operators, shift supervisors, and even outside contractors are at risk of unrecoverable injury or loss of life. The most dangerous processes include:
Handling and Processing the Raw Material
Unlike lumber, paper facilities require a specialized raw material treatment and chipping process to convert timber, to chips, and chips into pulp. The equipment involved with this process can require a high level of monitoring and maintenance. Workers are more at risk during machine maintenance and processes that require clear jams. However, there are many stages that involve work at heights over 4 feet. Often over machinery and dangerous objects.
Finishing and Forming Process of the Final Product
Extensive specialized processing such as washing and bleaching, then refining, beating, sizing, and coloring are unique to paper mills. Depending on the size and sophistication of the operation, these stages utilize large equipment that require various levels of manual monitoring, control, and maintenance. During paper forming and stock prep for finishing all results in the need to gain control over and manipulate massive weight loads which exposes workers to being stuck or crushed due to the risk of material falling, rolling, and/or sliding.
Let’s look at some of the fall safety systems for wood and paper facilities:
OVERHEAD LIFELINE SYSTEMS
These versatile and cost-effective systems provide a clear and effective tie-off solution in straight runs over milling, processing, conveyors, and rollers. Overhead lifeline systems are purpose built and designed to be integrated into the process our existing routines of workers to provide a seamless, unencumbered fall protection. Cable-based systems are effective systems when utilized over truck and railcar loading and unloading areas.
These active arrest systems stop a fall in progress through an overhead trolley attaching point and self-retracting lifeline. Using high-tension stainless steel cables systems can be designed to protect multiple users over straight runs such as structure line operations, conveyors, debarking, pulp, chipping, equipment, and over power plants.
RIGID RAIL AND TROLLEY FALL ARREST SYSTEMS
Like overhead horizontal lifelines, these systems require a harness and self-retracting lifeline to provide an overhead fall arrest tie-off connection point. A trolley is enclosed in a rail system and much like the trolley of a horizontal lifeline, this connection point follows the user as they traverse a straight and narrow work area at height.
The key benefit of Rigid Rail versus a Horizontal Lifeline system are the arresting and span distances. Our rigid rail systems offer effective fall arrest solutions in environments that demand very limited arrest distances. If a worker falls, rigid lifeline setups will swiftly halt the fall within a considerably shorter span than similar lifeline products. This feature makes rigid lifelines exception solutions for at-height-work performed on uneven surfaces in limited spaces.
These systems are more flexible than lifeline, especially when designed as a Cartesian Bridge Rail which provides a larger coverage along a multi-plan axis or as a Twin Rail system which provides fall protection to multiple users on the same system and allows them to bypass one another without disconnecting from and reconnecting to the system.
VERTICAL LIFELINE SYSTEMS
In January of 2017, OSHA issued an update to the 1910 general industry standard for fall protection. Known as OSHA’s 1910 Walking-Working Surface Standard this is a comprehensive set of standard updates that incorporates advances in technology, industry best practices, and national consensus standards to provide effective and cost-efficient worker protection.
Installing personal fall arrest or ladder safety systems on new fixed ladders over 24 feet and on replacement ladders/ladder sections, including fixed ladders on outdoor advertising structures became effective on November 19, 2018. This means fall protection is now required on ladders taller than (or that extend beyond) 24 feet. Cages are no longer considered enough.
Fixed ladders are often protected by some form of vertical lifeline solution. These systems can be easily installed on both new and existing ladders. These options include cable-based vertical lifelines and more commonly preferred are ladder davits equipped with self-retracting lifelines which help a worker to maintain a 3-point connection to the ladder from top to bottom.
ELEVATED WALKWAYS AND CATWALKS
Accessing sorters and conveyors for inspection or maintenance always poses fall safety challenges. In many operations elevated catwalk systems with stair access and safety gates, often used in conjunction with overhead tieoff systems, are used to make these tasks safer and easier to perform.
Our catwalk systems are meticulously engineered to comply with OSHA regulations, ensuring the complete protection of your employees when working at elevated heights. These catwalk systems can either be suspended from existing structures or stand independently.
SINGLE POINT ANCHORS
When work at height is contained to a small work area single-point anchors are employed. The coverage area provided by the single-point anchor is determined during the design phase and considers factors such as anchorage height, the length of retractable lifelines or lanyards, and the potential fall distance.
Our permanent single-point anchors offer a cost-effective solution for establishing point-of-access fall protection. These single-point anchors are custom-engineered to meet the specific requirements of your building or structure.
In some cases, additional structural reinforcements may be necessary to distribute the loads into these structures, or a permanent clamping method might be required to prevent damage to the steel. Unlike generic off-the-shelf single-point anchors, Flexible Lifeline Systems anchors are individually designed and engineered to ensure the safety of your workers.
SAFETY RAILING AND GUARDRAIL
Railing and guardrails aren’t typically thought of as engineered fall protection solutions. However, continuous systems that provide the most reliable form of protection will include features and certifications that simple hand-railing cannot. Often installed with toe boards to prevent tools and objects from falling to lower levels and self-closing gates in areas where access to lower levels or equipment is necessary.
It’s the law! Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the installation of safety railings to prevent fall accidents in sawmills and paper mills for OSHA regulation 1910.265. In addition to providing protection within a facility, safety railing also protects rooftops.
These systems seamlessly blend with preexisting ladders, equipment, and obstacles, delivering robust fall protection that complies with both OSHA and ANSI standards for all standard rooftop types. Furthermore, the freestanding guardrails within the system do not require drilling or any special anchoring methods.
SELF-CLOSING SAFETY GATES
Designed specifically to facilitate control access to and from hazardous points of entry, spring-loaded gates automatically close after use, promoting a secure work environment. Safety Gates system resets itself without requiring a worker to reset a bar or chain manually. In fact, using chains, single-bar or drop-bar style gates in an access point or opening, is no longer compliant and any areas that are protected with these systems have to be upgraded.
An OSHA-compliant self-closing safety gate is a solution for a wide array of outdoor and indoor industrial applications within sawmills and paper mills. They are found at the top of ladders and stairs, guarding openings on rooftop hatch guardrail systems, and all manner of controlled access areas where people might be struck by forklifts and vehicles.
Falls can happen at varying heights during almost any task. However, in situations where the work at height is being done over a long period of time or frequently with tools or multiple people, work platforms are ideal. Secure work decks, complete with railing, provide secure footing and grip where alternatives like ladders would be unsafe. If your work platform requirements evolve over time, modular platforms offer the flexibility to adapt and expand as necessary.
THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTION FOR EXPERIENCE.
It’s important to consult with experienced and qualified fall protection specialists who provide hands-on experience to solve safety challenges.
With a track record dating back to 1996, the Flexible Lifeline Solutions (FLS) team is recognized for delivering cost-effective, compliant, and top-tier fall protection solutions for sawmills and paper mills. Our team is equipped with the knowledge and expertise required to handle the demands of unusual structures or extreme conditions. Our manufactured solutions are of the highest quality and are backed with ISO 9001:2015 customer service.
The FLS engineering department is led by a Competent and Qualified Person, who is Structural Engineering Board Certified, a Professional Engineer Licensed in Thirty-Three States who has been an active member of ANSI Z359, Z359.6, & Z359.19 Committees and Sub-Committees for over five years. Our operations feature onsite fabrication and access to the world’s most trusted fall protection equipment manufacturers. Our project managers have decades of experience in leading solution development and managing field work and installation professionals with the right experience, tools, and equipment to ensure that projects run smoothly and timely.
The path to a safer operation starts with a phone call or email to schedule an initial no-obligation consultation or site visit. We are passionate about safety. Protecting lives and livelihoods is at the heart of what we do and provide quick and comprehensive assistance in both the United States and Canada. Let’s get started today contact us!