Fall Arrest and Protection is Key During Dam Maintenance

Effective dam maintenance is essential. It is a high priority activity in every one of the fifty states. As we approach May 31st, National Dam Safety Awareness Day, it is worth focusing on the topic of dams, so we can all have a clear idea as to how many dams we have in America, their general condition and how they are being maintained. This will lead us to considering fall protection systems for those who do maintain them.

The National Inventory of Dams says there are 87,000 dams across the USA. They meet the critical needs of hundreds of millions of Americans, providing adequate supplies of water to residential and agricultural communities. Dams are also responsible generating hydro-electric power, providing many different recreational facilities, and ensuring proper flood control. Dams, therefore, deliver an essential contribution to the nation’s GDP as well as to the safety of our people.

To balance this, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSA) says that, between 1998 and 2005, dam deficiencies rose 137%, and they continue to rise today. Between 2005 and 2013 there were 173 dam failures and 587 cases of incidents that would have resulted in failure had they not been corrected. The Federal government is responsible for only 23% of the nation’s dams, state agencies regulate 77%, but 65% of the overall total are privately owned, so the owners are responsible for actual maintenance.

In order to keep these structures functioning as well as possible, there is a constant round of inspection and maintenance to be done. Dam height, steepness and the types of inspection and maintenance that are needed present their own hazards. Worker safety relies on the correct fall protection systems being utilized. Safety evaluations, inspection and repair all demand personnel to be exposed to falling from a dam’s crest, its faces, abutments and spillways. Fall arrest must be a priority, if workers are to achieve all required inspection and maintenance objectives.

Maintenance planning takes many different factors into account. To ensure full OSHA, CSA and state regulation compliance, the fall arrest systems often have to be customized to meet the demands of particular jobs. An individual may need a simple, vertical lifeline, appropriately anchored, to allow work to be carried out anywhere on the dam’s crest, face, down its abutments and in its drainage points or spillways. A team of workers must be able to pass each other while remaining attached to horizontal lifelines. Workers moving across a riprap surface, as opposed to a concrete slab surface, must have anchor points and lifelines that allow them to move in the recommended way. Walkways and gates are essential pieces of safety equipment on dam crests.

Maintenance work, itself, is varied. Workers must carry and use simple tools such as shovels, saws and rodent control materials. They must also move around and use heavy equipment. The more difficult the terrain, the more complex the actions, and the more hazardous the equipment being used, the greater is the need for customized fall arrest solutions.