- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The office is steel I-beams with the sky above and danger below. The uniform is a hard hat and sometimes a harness. And the work takes skills, specialized training and the one sense many take for granted: balance.

Ironworkers who build steel structures need a sense of balance and dexterity to put up the frame of a high-rise, says Justin Crandol, senior director of safety and health at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), an Arlington-based association that represents more than 33,000 commercial, industrial and highway firms and related companies.

That sense is not as important for other construction workers who work on residential and smaller commercial buildings because they work with guardrails. Nor is it as important for firefighters who do high-angle rescues where training is key.

To do their job, ironworkers have to sit and stand on I-beams from the first floor up and crawl and walk across the beams to bolt them in, Mr. Crandol says.

“These workers are in a strange sensory environment,” says John Jeka, professor of kinesiology, biology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland in College Park. “They have to be incredibly sensitive to all that sensory information around them to make sure they don’t fall.”

Balance is both a function of the muscles and limbs to keep the body upright and of the sensory system, says Mr. Jeka, who has a doctorate in neuroscience.

“An absolutely crucial aspect of balance to stand up bipedally is using sensory information in very sophisticated ways,” he says.

The main sensory mechanisms used in balance are vision, the inner ear or vestibular system, and the proprioceptive system, Mr. Jeka says. The proprioceptive system consists of sensors in the muscles, called muscle spindles, that communicate to the nervous system the movement, or stretching and contracting, of the muscles and where the limbs are in space, he says.

“For these construction workers, vision probably plays a larger role than what is typical,” Mr. Jeka says.

For example, a tool sitting on an I-beam becomes an obstacle ironworkers need to notice to avoid stumbling over it and falling off the beam, he says. The obstacle, he says, is less of a hazard in a secure setting, such as a roof with guardrails.

Specialized training is key for construction workers who work in more secure settings that still involve heights, says Robert Matuga, director of labor safety and health services for the National Association of Home Builders, a trade association of 235,000 members based in Northwest.

Construction workers are trained on the risks and hazards they face, along with safe work practices and what they need to do to protect themselves from injury and accident, Mr. Matuga says.

They are taught to identify potential hazards and the appropriate actions to take, including covering or putting guardrails around floor holes, such as shafts, stairwells and skylights, and around roof edges and leading edges, which are the unprotected edges of buildings, he says.

“If the job is set up and planned correctly, there shouldn’t be any need to work on any unprotected narrow ledges,” Mr. Matuga says.

The workers are required to use a personal arrest system — which consists of a harness, lanyard or rope, and lifeline or tie-off point — if they are exposed to a fall of six feet or if they are working on scaffolding of 10 feet or near a leading edge not protected by a guardrail or safety-net system, Mr. Crandol says.

The lifeline is attached to a suitable structure that can support the weight of a falling person and that, if a fall occurs, prevents the worker from hitting the ground, Mr. Matuga says.

Ironworkers can work without fall protection up to 15 feet, Mr. Crandol says. For work 15 to 30 feet, they can choose to use the harness and lanyard, which employers are required to provide, he says. For work more than 30 feet or two stories, whichever is less, the protection is required, he explains.

“Our construction sites are very fluid, so we want to be adequately protected from the exposures we’re dealing with,” Mr. Crandol says.

Training on ladders and ropes is essential for firefighters to conduct high-angle rescues, which involve heights of more than 20 to 30 feet or inaccessible areas, such as an elevator shaft or the side of a building, says Deputy Chief Alfred Jeffery III of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS).

“The more you practice, drill and train, the higher level of confidence you have in the systems you use. That’s how you become skilled,” says Chief Jeffery, who is in charge of training for FEMS.

Firefighters learn how to use and perform rescue tasks on removable ground ladders and aerial ladders, which are extension ladders attached to a ladder truck, Chief Jeffery says. They learn how to use a rope system to lower or raise the victim to safety if the ladders cannot be used, he says. The rope system consists of a full-body harness, a lowering rope and a belay or safety line that provides backup or redundancy rope.

“The more you work with it, the better you get at it,” Chief Jeffery says. “If you can hang three feet off the ground, you can hang 300 feet off the ground, because it’s the same system.”

Practice and training help firefighters develop their skills and gain confidence in their abilities and the equipment they use, says Peter Bagdovitz, a firefighter with the Rescue 1 company in the District and a member of Local 36, the District chapter of the International Association of Firefighters, an association of firefighters and paramedics based in Northwest.

“You’re not thinking about how high up you are. You’re thinking about your job, and that helps you get over your fear,” Mr. Bagdovitz says. “That helps you gain confidence, because you’ve done it before.”

As such, safety is the first priority in any rescue, Chief Jeffery says.

“If we train the proper way with all the safety measures in place, then when we have to do it, we do it the right way,” he says. “The main thing about safety is never forget and always, always check.”

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