Vacuum Lifter Safety You Can Live By! by Joe Landsverk

At Wood's Powr-Grip® (WPG), we regularly receive calls from industrial safety managers requesting information about vacuum lifter safety and maintenance; and we are only too happy to help in any way we can. It's good that there is a growing concern about worker and work place safety. According to the U.S. Dept of Labor's (DOL) Commonly Used Statistics, there were 4,609 U.S. workers killed on the job in 2011–nearly 13 per day. It's encouraging that this is a 7% decrease from 2010! But even one fatality is too many. The information goes on to say:

"Out of 4,114* worker fatalities in private industry in calendar year 2011, 721 or 17.5% were in construction. The leading causes of worker deaths on construction sites were falls, followed by electrocution, struck by object, and caught-in/between. These "Fatal Four" were responsible for nearly three out of five (57%) construction worker deaths in 2011*, BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] reports. Eliminating the Fatal Four would save 410 workers' lives in America every year."

Well over half of the products manufactured by WPG are used in the construction industry. Vacuum cups and lifters are used extensively for installing windows, doors, building facades, counter tops, insulated metal panels, tile, appliances and countless other applications. In many ways, vacuum cups and below-the-hook (BTH) lifters are safety products in their own right: They provide quick and convenient ways to get a better grip on awkward loads, placing handlers at more advantageous and safer distance from load, and in some cases, they take the weight of the load completely off of the handler. However, the purpose of this series is to provide information addressing OSHA's “Fatal Four” as they relate specifically to using vacuum attaching cups and below-the-hook lifters.

FALLS: (251 – 35% of the 721 fatalities in construction)

Whether you are working at height or at ground level, let's face it: It's dangerous work to handle awkward, large or heavy materials such as, glass, stone or metal! Sure, using vacuum attaching equipment helps workers to grip their loads more securely, but there are many other jobsite factors that influence slips, falls and knock-off accidents!

1. Fall protection devices: When working above ground (6 feet [1.8 m] or more above lower level):

a. Make sure that proper edge railings and decking is in place;
b. Make sure personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) and anchors are in place, are regularly inspected, tested and correct for the working height;
c. Don't use vacuum cups or lifters to support or secure people, unless they are specifically designed as fall protection devices.

2. Lift and move plans: Always carefully inspect and plan the transfer route or fly zone prior to performing the actual lift. This helps prevent events that cause workers to slip, fall, get knocked over or knocked off above-ground structures.

a. Manual lifting with hand-held vacuum cups:

i. Level the path, remove tripping hazards and obstructions, and cover holes or openings;
ii. Know potential hazards, including wet/slippery areas, rugged or sloped terrain, overhangs and overhead obstructions;
iii. Identify resting or staging areas;
iv. Concentrate on the load, lifter and path during load movement;
v. Use a spotter to warn of upcoming hazard areas and to keep bystanders at a distance;

b. Below-the-hook lifters:

i. Identify overhead power lines and other potential obstructions or hazards;
ii. Practice the route and fly zone to determine the safest and most efficient transfer;
iii. Don't lift a load higher than necessary or lift a load over people;
iv. Use tethers to control the load during the lift;
v. Use spotters to watch load movement throughout the lift and warn handlers of potential hazards;
vi. Keep bystanders out of the lift/fly zone during the transfer, using tape or barricades;
vii. Don't leave suspended loads unattended;
viii. Know upcoming weather conditions and don't attempt lifts during windy or potentially windy conditions.

3. Proper lifting techniques: Reduce slips and falls by making sure that workers know their own limits and are using tools and techniques that prevent an unexpected load movement or release. Such load incidents can cause workers or bystanders to lose their balance, resulting in falls and other injuries.

a. Know how much weight you can safely lift;
b. Don't lift loads that exceed a vacuum cup's maximum load capacity (WPG hand-held vacuum cups have maximum load capacities ranging between 15 lbs [7 kg] and 175 lbs [79 kg] per cup);
c. Don't allow anything to interfere with free movement of a vacuum cup's plunger, and don't touch release tabs or the valve release lever during a lift;
d. Don't lift when a vacuum cup's red line is visible and check the vacuum indicator frequently during the lift;
e. Lift with your knees, not your back;
f. Start and stop slowly; when two or more are lifting, use a count-down to begin the lift in unison;
g. Check the attachment of vacuum cups under load before starting to walk;
h. Avoid jarring or bumping the load during transfer;
i. Don't allow people to ride on below-the-hook lifters or the load being lifted;
j. Don't attempt to lift cracked or broken materials with below-the-hook lifters;
k. Position a vacuum cup or below-the-hook lifter carefully, to prevent unexpected or accelerated shifts when the load is lifted, tilted or rotated.

Above all, remember that every lift and load transfer has the potential to go wrong! Even if you've done it a thousand times… especially if you’ve done it a thousand times… don't let routine tempt you to drop your defenses. Oftentimes we scoff at imposed safety rules with the implied message, "it's for your own good". We may say to ourselves, "Are you kidding me? I’ve been doing this for X years". At your next safety meeting, remember that 410 workers in our industry didn't go home in 2011… (not sure about last year). Your safety really is your responsibility and–Something You Can Live By!

*1 U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA Commonly Used Statistics,