Tools at Height

A structure or mechanical system that requires fasteners also demands tools to maintain it properly. In power sectors such as wind, fossil fuel, and nuclear, some work areas may be several hundred feet in the air. While working at those extreme heights, or even just 10 feet off the ground, it’s simply unacceptable to drop anything. That’s why the concept of “tools at height” is being embraced as a way to improve safety and efficiency on the worksite.

Tools at height tools come with integrated safety components that are secured or tethered to prevent a falling hazard. A tool security and drop-prevention system equals superior site safety. In the wind energy industry, it’s easy to see how this is manifest when a worker drops a tool or the component of a tool. In the confined cylindrical space of a nacelle or tower, a ratchet dropped by a worker at height can do more than merely startle a worker below. It can cause severe injury or death. The reality is that a mere pound of steel ricocheting off equipment or flooring 300 feet below can create something akin to shrapnel. Dropping something that creates debris is as dangerous as actually hitting someone with an object directly from above.

And what of the time wasted when a worker forgets a tool and is forced to make “the walk of death”—an unplanned, time-sucking trip down a ladder or slow-moving elevator to pick up a wrench or screwdriver no one thought to bring on the first trip? An extra 15-minute trip here and there leads to a decline in productivity.

Managing Tools at Height

One of the key parts of the tools at height concept is a lanyard or tether (Figure 1). Tools built specifically to accommodate the tether allow the tool design to maintain its strength and structural integrity. The tether can be attached to a wrist or tool belt, depending on tool weight and the application, such as workers using tools in the wind energy industry (Figure 2).

1. Tethered tools. Tools built specifically to accommodate a tether or a lanyard allow the tool design to maintain its strength and structural integrity. The tether can be attached to a wrist or tool belt, depending on tool weight and application. Courtesy: Snap-on Industrial

2. Safety first. Operating inside a wind turbine, this worker uses a tool that is tethered. Especially in the wind energy industry, a tool security and drop-prevention system equals superior site safety. In the confined cylindrical space of a nacelle or tower, a tool dropped by a worker at height can easily cause severe injury or death to another worker. Courtesy: Snap-on Industrial

Other components include coiled, weld-less fittings that are built as an integral part of a wrench, rather than a modification. The design, which utilizes an anchor attachment “floating” across the length of the tool, provides ease of use, with no modifications that could compromise its strength. Lock-on retention safety pins essentially bind a socket to a ratchet wrench, a significant improvement over the conventional ball retention method.

Custom tool kits based on specific applications are another integral part of the tools at height program. The goal is to help companies and technicians reduce down time and work more efficiently by creating a kit with tools for jobs such as preventive maintenance. Many power plants have equipment, machinery, and systems that require regular, ongoing preventive maintenance as part of their operation. A custom kit can be developed to house all of the necessary tools required to perform preventive maintenance on specific components. All the technician has to do is check out the kit from the tool crib, and all the necessary tools to complete the job are available.

Along with reducing tool-toting time, a dedicated kit provides a secure transportation method and acts an extension of a comprehensive asset-management program. Shockproof or waterproof cases are available with etched foam tool control packing. With custom packing, every tool has its place, so the technician knows immediately if a tool was inadvertently left in a critical component, reducing the likelihood of foreign material being left behind on the job.

Origins of the Tethered Tool Approach

Foreign material exclusion (FME), a term originated by the nuclear power industry, is a set of procedures designed to minimize the contamination of a system by foreign materials. For example, if a tool falls into a nuclear facility’s cooling tank, it must be removed. That’s not an easy thing to do in a radioactive environment, but the task can be just as difficult in other segments of the power generation industry and in other critical industries. What would a misplaced socket do in a reactor? And what are the cost considerations in shutting down that reactor, not to mention the maintenance necessary to bring it back online?

The idea for the tethered tool was born of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s requirements in the early 1980s, primarily for work done on satellites. Satellites are extremely delicate, and a lot of last-minute wrench turning goes on at launch time. A socket dropped on a solar panel can create millions of dollars in damage. In the case of a satellite, it means sending the entire assembly back to the manufacturer for a repair that could have been prevented. It doesn’t have to happen more than once before people are looking for solutions.

Making Safety Simple

The lanyard is the low-technology workhorse component of any tools at height program. A good system includes a drop indicator that opens up if the lanyard becomes overstressed. Usually, the indicator is excess strap material that’s folded over on the lanyard and held in place by a threaded stitch. It tells the technician that the application exceeds the capacity of the lanyard and is therefore pushing the tether beyond its capabilities.

The socket presents a challenge because it is relatively small and cannot be tethered. The solution here is to put a pin in the socket so that it’s not simply held in place but is definitively attached to the ratchet. Then the lanyard is attached to the ratchet and the ratchet is attached to the worker’s wrist or tool belt.

Increasing Workplace Safety and Productivity

The power generation industries are using tools at height to operate more safely and efficiently. The lanyard, the socket pin, and tools tethered to a tool belt are the components of a comprehensive tool security program that enhances workplace safety. Amateur modification of existing tools is not an option in an environment where mistakes can cause system failure or result in worker injury. Specialized tools with a dedicated tethering system are created specifically for use in close quarters or at height and to support foreign material exclusion. The goals are superior site and worker safety and increased productivity.

—Contributed by Pat McDevitt ( is manager, business development, at Snap-on Industrial.