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Accessing the Rail Car or Truck
by Bob Babin

Although hard statistics are not readily available to support this observation, experienced people recognize the inherent danger involved in climbing rail car and truck ladders. Hopper rail car ladders require a right angle change of direction a few feet up from the ground, for example. Moreover, to clear the last two steps up the ladder, the climber must reach over the top of the ladder and grip the walkway grating for support. Both tanker truck and tanker rail car ladders incline toward the body of the tank, forcing a climber to reach forward at an awkward angle to grip the ladder rungs for support and pull himself up. Icy ladder rungs are extremely slippery, especially for cold, wet or gloved hands. Oily or dirty rungs can also be very slippery, and many rail car ladders can be found in damaged or loose condition. Fatigue is another factor to be considered, especially during extremely hot weather or busy seasons when employees are frequently working long hours.

Overhead fall protection systems, such as a trolley beam style fall protection system, are recommended to protect employees when traversing the tops of rail cars and tanker trucks. There are also several excellent access systems available to improve safety and minimize fatigue while ascending vehicles.

At the very minimum, if there is a fall protection system available, the climber should hook up to the fall protection system before ascending the ladders. Because they typically minimize the worker’s possible total fall length to a distance of less than two feet, trolley beam style fall protection systems are most effective for this purpose. Safety cables typically allow a falling worker to fall much further, often as much as four to six feet even with engineered systems, and the fall arrests with cables are far more dangerous (due to secondary falls and the increased potential for a falling worker to strike the ground).

For safer access to these vehicles, consider some of the inexpensive access stairways, platforms and drop down ramps now commercially available. Safe Harbor, Fall Protection Systems, Inc., Carbis and Benko all offer excellent systems for this purpose. The inexpensive Safe Harbor TLS Series, for instance, provides a low-cost effective solution to ascending rail car tops from a fixed location. A recent joint marketing agreement between Fall Protection Systems and Safe Harbor has led to the introduction of several new products, including portable access systems which are rolled up to the rail car, and innovative Track Mounted TLS models which combine a fixed rail-side platform/walkway with a slide mounted movable access ramp. This creates a system which can be moved easily to the exact desired location alongside the rail car.

Regular safety training will improve employee awareness and help make your facility a safer place to work. Proper climbing and descending techniques should be taught and workers monitored on a regular basis. Thousands of people suffer serious and disabling leg, ankle and foot injuries each year, often from very short jumps to the ground from relatively low heights. It is easy to turn an ankle from as little as two feet when landing on a rough rail bed surface or the side of a rail tie.

You can help minimize accidents by coaching your employees to eliminate jumping the last few feet, encouraging them to descend carefully from the vehicles and to be sure they make it safely to the ground level before releasing their grip on the ladder. Steel toe work boots with good ankle and arch support will help minimize these injuries, as well as protect against other hazards.

While trying to identify and eliminate potential causes of workplace injuries, a good practice is to monitor employee routines, regardless of how mundane they may seem. Be on the lookout for careless behavior that might lead to injury. If an employee knows you are watching, expect him to be more careful. Therefore, evaluation over a few visits might be more revealing than one concentrated visit during which the employee works at following all the rules.

Safety is a daily concern requiring constant attention, but our job as safety people is to convince the employee that preventing injuries is always much less painful and far less expensive than the alternative.

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