Keep a grip on tools to improve safety

Improvements in tethered tool technology are changing the discussion for operating a safe and productive plant.

By John Martell and Sean Ryan, Snap-on Industrial November 2, 2016

Tethered tools and tool control are concepts you may not have given much thought to – but you should.

Dropping a tool from a height of only 10 feet and striking someone can still cause significant injuries. And implementing a sound tool control system can ensure all tools and equipment are accounted for, which ultimately saves money and increases productivity. Tethered tools and tool control go hand-in-hand and are crucial components toward operating a safe and productive plant.

The case for tethered tools

If you know that today you’ll be working on an elevated platform, chances are you’ll want to wear a fall protection harness. That’s because you recognize the inherent danger to yourself of falling while working at height, and federal law mandates the use of safety harnesses. Should you take the same appropriate safety measures and protect your tools from falling as well? A general rule is that anyone who’s wearing a fall protection harness ought to be tethering their tools. Following this step would reduce the number of incidents of equipment and people being struck by falling tools. Yet every year, people are struck and killed by falling objects on work sites.

In November 2014, a 58-year-old man was killed after being struck in the head with a tape measure that had become dislodged from the belt of a worker on the 50th floor of a high-rise construction project in New Jersey. The man wasn’t even directly underneath the falling tool. Rather, the 1-pound tape measure fell nearly 500 feet, ricocheted off a piece of equipment about 15 feet from the ground, bounced once and struck the man’s head. He was just exiting his vehicle to make a delivery to the work site. The man, who wasn’t wearing a hard hat, was transported to the hospital, where he died later that day. A 1-pound tool falling from that height struck the ground traveling about 140 mph.

Unfortunately, accidents like this aren’t isolated incidents. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, 708 people were killed in work-related incidents due to contact with objects or equipment in 2014, and of that figure, 34% occurred when workers were struck by falling objects or equipment.

Clearly, dropped objects such as tools pose a significant threat to people below. But you may be thinking that your facility isn’t 50 stories high, rather just 50 feet, so a dropped wrench won’t do too much damage. Think again. According to Dropped Object Prevention Scheme (DROPS), an object that weighs less than three pounds dropped from a height of only 30 feet can be fatal. If you’re wearing a fall protection harness, your tools need to be secured as well.

Tethered tools are not a new concept. Tethering devices come in many shapes and sizes, but many fall short for one reason or another. Some mount in a way that limits the full use of the tool and are difficult to handle, and technicians view them as obstructions to productivity. Others work with only a portion of the tools, leaving some unsecured. With that said, the most common complaint of tethered devices is that they inhibit the functionality of the tool. A tool can be tethered, but if a technician refuses to use the device because it’s too cumbersome, then the design fails and the objective of a safer working environment is not reached.

Engineered attachment points

New technologies for drop prevention are emerging that focus on maintaining or enhancing a tool’s functionality. An important development is that these new tethering systems are designed in conjunction with the tool and not looked at as an afterthought. Developing system components independently is what ultimately compromises functionality and inhibits program implementation. Engineered attachment points must consider the tool’s design and function in order to maintain or improve use when tethered. Rigorous drop testing to certify the design of attachment points also should be in place to ensure safety. Fortunately there are innovative new offerings that do just that. Here are a few examples:

  • Locking pins:Square drive tools and accessories are designed and manufactured with spring loaded lock buttons in square drives. The lock button engages with side lock holes drilled in sockets, extensions, and adaptors ensuring positive retention. A pin release tool is used to separate components in the system. This method is preferred over using quick release tools because a quick release button or collar can be activated inadvertently causing the drive tools to separate and become dangerous dropped objects.
  • Rotating tabs: Screwdrivers are fitted with stainless steel tabs that rotate freely 360° so lanyards do not get tangled around the users hand or the screwdriver handle. This method also leaves all of the handle surfaces available to be used for power and control.
  • Safety coils: The stainless steel coils are installed on wrenches and slide along the wrench handle out of the way from an operator’s hand. This provides full use of the wrench’s handle, which provides reach and leverage when needed.
  • Strategic location: Removable jaws on pipe wrenches are pinned or drilled so the jaw cannot be separated from the wrench handle. This is critical because simply attaching to the hang hole already forged into the wrench handle leaves too great a risk of dropping the removable jaw.

Transport, use tools safely

In examining ways to make drop prevention systems better for technicians, the industry has studied the most common cause of tool drops-the transfer between storage and use. More than half of drop incidents occur during this frequent action. With most systems, in order to secure a tool, the technician must first retrieve it and then clip or attach it to a lanyard. This process involves both hands and creates potential for dropped tools.

This practice is one that requires attention. When working at height, technicians should maintain three points of contact for their safety: two feet on a platform and one hand on a secured infrastructure. By using both hands to handle tools and attach the tool to a tethering device, the technician loses one point of contact.

To address this concern, tethering systems have been developed that eliminate the additional actions normally required to secure tools. An example is a tool belt in which each tool has its own pouch or holster with a tethering device already installed. This enables the technician to simply remove the tool, use it, and put it back into its place on the belt-all with one hand. Since every tool is already independently tethered, no device needs to be attached, which removes transferring issues and eliminates drops.

Belts and harnesses can be custom designed to meet specific applications within different industries. Whether power generation, oil and gas, or utilities, systems can be designed with the proper tools and ordered as turn-key solutions with a single part number. Every tool is already installed with its own tethered device and ready to be used: just open the box, put on the belt, and go to work.

The case for tool control

A tool dropped into machinery or equipment may not pose immediate dangers to fellow employees but can cause great monetary damage. Picture these scenarios: A worker in a food processing plant is repairing an overhead light, and a wrench slips out of his hand and into a machine making pasta. Imagine a worker 30 feet in the air servicing a company’s HVAC system; or consider all the banners that hang from the ceilings of trade show halls. What happens if these workers lose their grip on a wrench and it falls? What kind of equipment or trade show exhibit it is going to strike below? These dropped tools all need to be recovered.

Now let’s take these scenarios a step further. What happens if the worker doesn’t realize he dropped a tool? An unsecured tool can easily slip out of a pouch while working, and if the technician isn’t paying close attention, he might not realize it’s gone, and potentially now it’s lodged somewhere within a machine. This can be particularly troubling if it lands in the pasta processing machine. Left undetected, that socket could start to leave tiny metal shavings in the pasta, and that could lead to major safety issues for consumers.

That’s why tool control is so important. Being able to effectively account for your tools and equipment at all times can prevent a socket, wrench or anything else from going missing. This is going to save you money and increase productivity in the long run.

Here’s another way to look at tool control when working at height. It’s probably common for technicians to fill a satchel full of tools and head up to an elevated platform. Now what happens if the bag gets accidentally kicked off the work platform or tips over, spilling some tools to the ground? The technician goes to retrieve them, but how does he know if he’s got them all back if he doesn’t have a tool control system? How does he know that one of the tools didn’t land on a generator and going to vibrate off into a hub and do damage?

The answer is the technician really doesn’t know unless there’s some type of tool control system in place. Tool control can be designed to meet your needs, and perhaps the simplest way to start is a visual tool control with keyless entry and foam cutouts for tools. Visual tool control is just that-it provides the technician with visual confirmation that all the tools have been returned to their proper place. If a technician removes 10 tools and returns only nine, the empty space quickly tells him that something is missing. To limit who can have access to a tool box, keyless entry allows only certain people who are authorized to scan a badge to gain entry into the box. For the ultimate in tool control, some boxes use digital imaging technology that takes photos of each drawer to track tool usage in real time. All of these tool control methods can reduce tool theft and lower tool replacement costs.

Of course some companies have traditionally shied away from buying quality tools for their staff out of fear they’ll lose them or will be stolen. So they allow technicians to bring their own tools from home, which can save a company money in the short term by avoiding the costs of purchasing tools. But do all those boxes from home have an adequate tool control system? Are those tools equipped with proper tethered devices for use at height? The answer is probably "no" to both questions. The days of working with substandard tools are over. Companies can invest in quality tools for their employees and deploy a sound tool control program to prevent them from going missing.

No one wants to use inferior tools on the job, but many companies are letting their staff do just that. That practice can end today by implementing a tethered tool and tool control program. More than 1,000 tools are now available with engineered tether points for drop prevention. By design, the systems do not interfere with functionality or productivity. In addition, with varying needs across industries, custom, turn-key solutions, such as the tool belt referenced above, make drop prevention programs more robust and simplify procurement. Tethered tools and tool control are two areas that can improve safety and productivity, while lowering costs in the long run.

John Martell and Sean Ryan are product managers at Snap-on Industrial. John can be reached at; Sean can be reached at