Aircraft Maintenance Safety and the Essentials of Fall Protectionby John Persinos | November 16, 2018

Fall safety
Suction anchors attached to retractable cords cut down the incidence of falls.

Aircraft hangar safety hinges on the proper use of aerospace workstands, aerospace platforms, cantilevered structures, anchored retractable cords — all of the products that can prevent mechanics from getting injured or even dying from falls.

Many aviation mechanics remain unaware of the deadly hazards in the MRO work environment. One of the most underestimated threats to life, limb and aircraft is the physical act of falling. It’s a key vulnerability in aircraft maintenance safety.

Falls are among the most common causes of serious work related injuries and deaths, particularly in aviation maintenance. Prudent employers must incorporate procedures and equipment to prevent mechanics from falling off elevated work stations, overhead platforms, or even holes in floors and walls. Slipping on floors is another hazard.

John Corriveau, founder and general manager of Lighthouse Safety, Brookfield, Wisconsin, laments how fall safety is getting worse, undermining aircraft maintenance safety.

Lighthouse Safety provides equipment, training and installation for fall protection and confinement systems. Customers include Gulfstream, Duncan Aviation, Caterpillar, American Airlines, and Wisconsin Energy. According to Corriveau, the overall trend when it comes to falls in the workplace, especially in aviation, is not good.

“The numbers aren’t getting any better,” he says. “Two workers a day, in all industries, are dying in the U.S. because of falls.”

When it comes to aircraft maintenance safety, Corriveau knows what he’s talking about. He’s a fall protection and confined space specialist for a wide variety of industries, with over three decades of experience working with fall safety equipment.

He’s a contract trainer for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the OSHA Training Institute in Arlington Heights, Ill., and for the U.S. Air Force. He lives and breathes aircraft maintenance safety issues.

John trains both in the U.S. and abroad and is a member of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z359 committee that has spent the last few years updating the ANSI standards for fall protection. He works closely with aircraft mechanics, soliciting feedback for use in the design of new products.

Corriveau says fall-related accidents have been the number one citation against companies from OSHA for the last five years. He says aviation maintenance, with its complexity and multitude of tools and machinery, is a breeding ground for falls.

What’s one of the most effective ways that aviation companies can better protect their mechanics from falls?

Corriveau says: “As much as possible, get rid of ladders and replace them with lifts and aerospace platforms. It’s one of the easiest but most effective preventive steps an aviation company can take to improve aircraft hangar safety. Compel mechanics to conduct work from lifts and from platforms. Too many ladders are being used and not enough working platforms.”

Deadly Complacency Among Mechanics

Marc Kleinhans, an A&P mechanic and pilot, told us that the danger of falling is one of the most imperative aircraft maintenance safety topics.

“In fact, the lack of proper fall safety procedures is a dirty little secret in the MRO world,” Kleinhans says. “You see, aircraft operators and MRO shops tend to like a nice, shiny light-gray hangar floor, because it highlights the aircraft and makes it more beautiful. They’re setting up a showroom, but they don’t realize that they’re also setting up potential tragedy.”

Kleinhans says shiny floors get slippery from rain and spilled fluids, such as oil and solvents. That’s when people fall — and he’s seen serious injuries result.

Kleinhans’ remarks carry considerable weight. In addition to a seasoned aircraft mechanic, he’s also a high-time pilot for both fixed-wing airplanes and helicopters. From his experience, he cites remedial steps to prevent slippery floors.

“Provide marked walkways, in yellow-and-black barber pole markings, for foot traffic,” he counsels. “Put walkways over cables and wires. Put some grit in those floors. High-tech aggregates are available that you can put into a floor that still look nice, but they provide friction.”

But are Kleinhans’ colleagues getting the message?

“Aviation mechanics get complacent,” Corriveau says. “They sometimes don’t clean up their messes off the floor. And when they think the height at which they’re working isn’t very high, they’ll mistakenly assume they don’t need to take precautions. But a worker only has a 50-50 chance of surviving a fall of 15-30 feet.”

Corriveau points out that human reaction time for any stimuli is about .67 seconds. “In that amount of time, a mechanic would fall about seven feet, which means the engine or railing he or she expected to grab if they slipped and fell would be seven feet above them in less than a second,” he says.

Among the new aircraft tech innovations in the fall safety industry are retractable restraints which quickly pull in a mechanic who falls. They’re like seatbelts that are triggered to retract. That’s important, because a worker hanging from a harness can swing at wide degrees, harming himself and/or the aircraft. New models of railings and lifts feature embedded retractable safety lines.

MRO shops are increasingly adopting cantilever structures made of ultra-light, super-tough materials. These devices allow the airplane mechanic to reach the desired height while safely working around the skids, engines and body of the aircraft. This positions MRO professionals within arm’s reach of their work without having to use a ladder.

Customizable tool trays attached to railings also make trips up and down a lift or ladder unnecessary, further reducing the odds of a fall. Prevalent fall safety equipment also includes structural steel mezzanine platforms, manual and automated vertical lifts, and rideable material lifts. Suction anchors attached to retractable cords also cut down the incidence of falls and improve aircraft hangar safety.

The Risks of Customized Codes

Another company in the vanguard of fall safety is Wildeck, based in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

Wildeck’s suite of aircraft maintenance products include rolling ladder stands, helicopter maintenance work stands, work platforms and stair/tower systems.

David Heap, sales manager at Wildeck, says fall safety requires standardized codes, but these codes are sometimes revised on the fly, which can introduce risk.

“We find that safety really depends on following the OSHA codes for ladders, platforms, and other equipment,” Heap says. “OSHA looks for consistency in the height and depth of steps, for example. When you get into aviation manufacturing, we see customized codes for unusual situations, which requires extra vigilance because these codes are exceptions.”

Indeed, Heap says custom platforms for aircraft hangars comprise a major part of Wildeck’s product line. In these situations, he says, safety cords play an important role.

When it comes to safety cords, John Corriveau at Lighthouse cites the basics: anchorage, or the secure point of attachment that supports the entire weight of the system; body harness, which is personal protection worn by workers performing the job; and a connecting device (such as lanyards and rope grabs), which attach a harness to an anchor point.

“Anchorage, body and connector — the ABCs of fall prevention,” he says.

OSHA Checklist

OHSA’s fall safety guidelines are quite specific:

✓ Companies must cover all holes on the floor if it’s possible an employee will fall into one.

✓ In areas where open-sided platforms are elevated, including floors and runways, there must be toeboards and guardrails.

✓ Companies must install guardrails and toeboards anywhere a worker could fall on or into while running equipment and machines.

✓ Depending on the type of job, OHSA may require full lines of fall protection that include safety nets, railings on stairs, handrails and a safety line and harness.