Follow The Directions
Avoiding A Scissor Lift Fatality
Published: October 2013
By Diane Kelly
Even the most basic projects can turn deadly when hazards are not assessed and safety rules are not followed (regardless of the worker's experience). While installing lights in the overhanging roof soffit of an urban transportation terminal, a 36-year-old electrician was killed when the scissor lift he was on toppled over. This electrician had been with his employer for 18 months and had an additional four years of prior experience elsewhere. He was well on his way to becoming a journeyman electrician.
On the day of the incident, a three-person crew arrived to install the remaining lights of the terminal building. The crew included a foreman, an electrician (the victim) and an electrician's helper. In the morning, work was completed along the building's side and the rear near a cafeteria and covered patio. A short distance from the rear of the building (28 feet) and only 5 feet from the covered patio was a saltwater bay with a retaining wall, or bulkhead, of stacked timbers. Because of the patio awning, work there necessitated the use of a battery-powered, hydraulic scissor lift instead of the cherry-picker they had been using. The lift had a 20-foot-high reach and an 8-foot-long, 28-inch-wide work platform with safety rails. The platform could extend 3 feet for a total length of 11 feet.
In the early afternoon, the foreman set the lift up beside the patio, since the awning prevented it from being on the hard surface. The crew leveled dirt and mulch with their feet and placed a 4-by-8-foot sheet of ¾-inch plywood as a base. The foreman raised the lift to test it. Satisfied that it worked properly, he went to work on the other side of the building.
During the afternoon, the victim came down from the lift three times. Around 3:45 p.m., he came down to get a drill from the helper. The helper saw the victim¬ - after he went back up - sitting on the top guardrail of the platform with his legs wrapped around the bottom rails for support. The helper, who was sawing a board near the bottom of the lift, also noticed that the victim was wearing stereo headphones.
A few minutes later, the victim cried out, and the lift tipped over. The lift platform landed just beyond the bulkhead, and the victim was dumped headfirst into the 4- to 5-foot-deep tidal bay. The helper jumped in but was unable to reach the victim. He went for the foreman while cafeteria patrons came to help. When the foreman got to the scene, the victim was being removed from the water, and an EMT-trained bus driver began to work on him. When the police and paramedics arrived, the victim was unresponsive but had a pulse. However, after being transported to the local hospital, he died of head and neck injuries.
Several factors contributed to this fatality:
• The lift was designed for indoor use on hard surfaces. It had a warning buzzer and light that activated when the lift tilted beyond a preset 3 degrees side-to-side or 5 degrees front-to-back. The federal OSHA investigator at the site measured the pitch of the plywood at 8 degrees to the side. The lift was not designed for outdoor use on uneven, soft surfaces.
• The dirt and mulch under the plywood compacted unevenly under the weight of the lift, causing it to lean to the side.
• The victim was observed sitting on the safety rails, possibly throwing the lift even more off balance. This behavior is not in accordance with the manufacturer's directives; when using a scissor lift, the operator should stand on the platform.
• The lift's warning buzzer had been tested and was working; however, no one heard the alarm prior to the accident. The victim was observed wearing headphones that could have prevented him from hearing the warning alarm.
In retrospect, it is easy to see what could have been done differently to avoid this fatality, but a hazard analysis and attention to the corresponding precautions could have prevented it at the time. Industrial lifts must be used in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations, design and directions. The workers should have been trained and familiar with the equipment. Even knowing the basic concept of lift placement might have saved his life; an all-terrain personnel lift would have been better in this location. Bottom line, had the employer conducted a job hazard analysis and provided appropriate training before attempting this job, the victim might still be alive.