Airborne erector cheats death twice

It was a pleasant October day. One of my employees with considerable safety training was working on a 250’ self supporting tower situated right beside a lake with great views in all directions. He was feeling good and enjoying the prospect of the pending work. His crew, consisting of his crew chief and one other climber, was going to be replacing diagonal braces on the tower. 

The other climber was pretty new and had never done this kind of job before, so the seasoned rigger was going to direct the work on the tower. Of course, his crew chief and he had done a lot of these jobs and he felt good about getting the job done in the allotted time.

Since they were changing braces on the upper sections of the tower, the loads weren’t going to warrant using the winch line on their winch truck. Instead, they rigged it with a 5/8” rope and used the capstan on the truck to pull the braces, a few at a time, up the tower.

They were working for one of our favorite customers. The customer rep would always come out on the job and he had developed a pretty good relationship with the crew. He never told them how to do the job, but was there to watch for safety issues for his company and also to make sure they didn’t have any issues with the scope of work or materials provided. They had enjoyed their usual camaraderie before starting up the tower to get her rigged for the day’s work.

The braces to be replaced were near the top of the tower, so that’s where the tower technician hung the block and rope. Once he got the rope back down, his crew chief tied on some braces and a bolt bucket with a few tools and the necessary bolt sets. He started loosening up bolts on the braces they were going to remove shortly.

The payload arrived and he dogged it off.  His buddy and he started to change out the first brace. They didn’t have too much trouble getting the old brace off.  When he put the new one in position and stabbed the first bolt through he found out the bolts they were sent had a little too much shoulder on them. He temporarily used a couple of old bolts to secure the new brace. They freed up the line and the bolt bucket and sent it on down while the crew chief ransacked his truck for the right length of bolts for this section. 

While this was going on he worked around the tower loosening up the bolts on the other two faces.  Whenever he climbed and wasn’t on a safety climb device, as required by company policy, he used his double safety lanyards secured in his back D-ring to provide fall arrest protection. They have hooks big enough to go around the braces at this height on the tower.

His assistant was directing the bolt bucket back up and getting it into position. In anticipation of getting back to the task at hand, the rigger moved on around the leg to the original face he had been on when they found the bolt discrepancy.  The tower is about 6’ leg to leg at this height. He snapped his lanyards and his positioning belt onto the horizontal brace in front of him so they could slide across as he crossed the tower face. If he had snapped his lanyards around the diagonal above him he would have had to move it again as he crossed the face of the tower.

About halfway across the face he paused to enjoy the view and get a drink of water.  As he reached back into his deep bag for his bottle he suddenly realized something was terribly wrong.  He basically did a back flip right off the tower! His head, hardhat rather, hit the flange below him and he flipped over again, still falling, but inexplicably came to rest 40’ below where the fall began!

He was feeling woozy and his vision kept going on and off. He knew he was in trouble and was struggling to stay awake and reach around to grab some steel. He was hanging with his back to the tower.

The tower erector’s buddy, seeing the whole thing happen, raced down the tower to help him. Was he ever glad to see him!  His assistant got him around into the tower and used his positioning belt to secure him. About that time, his safety lanyards started sliding on down the load rope! Feeling temporarily secure, he began checking himself for missing body parts.

He later stated that he had rigged a rope to pull the load up the tower. When he stopped to get a drink, the load rope was right behind him. When he leaned back to get his bottle, the brace he was tied to pulled out from the tower at the far end.  Apparently, he had taken the nut off earlier. His body weight falling backwards, head over heels, catapulted the lanyards and positioning belt off and the lanyards wrapped themselves around the load rope as he was in the process of falling.  That was all that physically stopped him from falling to his death. 

Fortunately, his hard hat stayed on his head and took the impact of his head striking the tower flange. It left a fist-sized dent in the top-back portion of his hardhat…the protection equipment that had saved his life that day.

His crew chief on the ground and helper on the tower acted swiftly and competently and within ten minutes of the accident he was on the ground and being treated by emergency medical teams.  Our customer had been watching from across the lake. Believe it or not, he was in the process of taking photos of the tower erector when he fell. He immediately called 911 and then raced around to help our crew chief with the rescue operation.

The tower tech will probably tell you that he should have died twice that day. Once when he hit his head on the flange and once again, when he should have hit the ground. His hard hat didn’t fall off but took the impact of his head meeting that flange 20’ below him. As you know, he didn’t hit the ground.  His safety lanyards wrapped around the load line and slowed him down and eventually arrested his fall 40’ below the point it started. There is absolutely no physical or engineered explanation for this. I believe he’s sure that God intervened for some reason, saving his life. 

He spent one night in the hospital. They put a half-dozen stitches in his shin.  That is all. No head or neck injury. No internal bleeding. Just some sore muscles, bruises, a few stitches and a great deal of embarrassment!

He had the proper equipment and the proper training to be able to avoid the accident. He just wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing and the conditions around him. In trying to save some time and trouble, he hooked everything he had onto the same brace rather that putting his lanyards on another brace where they should have been. It appeared to his customer that he was following proper procedure, but he knew he was taking a short cut. He just thought he could get by with it. He would have, if the brace he was hooked to had been properly bolted on. If he had been focused on the gravity of his job he would have made sure that brace was secure. So, he must take full responsibility for his mistakes that created the accident. Fortunately, for him, and the industry, he didn’t have to pay the usual consequence. By God’s amazing grace he is alive today!
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To foster the sharing of accident information so that others can benefit by not  becoming exposed to similar situations while working on  an elevated structure, when requested, we will not publish the  author's name. For additional near-miss articles, please visit our Discussion Forum.

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