Evan Ramstad, Star Tribune digital business editor, looks at how Minnesota works, explaining what’s behind the headlines and meeting with people who keep the wheel turning.

When falling down on the job is not a figure of speech

Posted by: Evan Ramstad Updated: June 5, 2014 - 5:21 PM

On construction sites, utility poles, energy drilling locations and mines, the greatest danger is losing your feet and falling. Fifty-four Minnesotans died in construction accidents from 2010 to 2012, the latest years for which data is available, and nearly half of those deaths resulted from falls or slips.

This week, Red Wing-based Capital Safety, one of the largest makers of fall protection gear, is aiming to get in front of 50,000 construction workers with demonstrations of the latest in equipment and best practices. The company has 36-specially built safety demo trucks rolling across the country. Their work is part of a broader push by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration this week to get construction firms to focus on fall prevention.

Capital Safety visited workers at both stadiums under construction in the Twin Cities, the Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis and the Saints stadium in downtown St. Paul, on Wednesday. On Thursday, one of the places the company visited was the former Pillsbury flour mill just across the Mississippi from downtown Minneapolis. There, about 150 workers are transforming the huge mill into artists studios and lofts by cutting holes on the sides of, and building floors into, 10-story high silos.

Workers at the A Mill Artists Lofts site in Minneapols gather for demonstration on fall safety.

Workers at the A Mill Artists Lofts site in Minneapols gather for demonstration on fall safety.

Kevin Coplan, president of Capital Safety's North America operations, said the company and industry are focused on developing products that both reduce the force that workers take when they go into a freefall and the distance they go. Federal regulations say that safety equipment may not let a worker fall more than six feet. Even at that distance, the force on the body can be 10 times a person's weight. A 300-pound worker, for instance, would create 3,500 pounds of energy in a six-foot fall.

The most advanced gear is called a "self retracting lifeline" and goes into action the moment it senses a worker's body moving into an accelerated speed. In the demonstration by Capital Safety, a 220-pound weigh was stopped just two feet into a potential six-foot drop. "As soon as it senses a certain speeds, it locks and arrests energy," Coplan said.

OSHA requires fall safety equipment to create a maximum energy of 1,800 pounds. Manufacturers like Capital Safety, 3M and Honeywell, have products that generally have reduced the amount of force from a fall to 900 to 1,350 pounds.

Such safety development work is a relatively unheralded area of high-tech engineering and value-added manufacturing. At Capital Safety's Red Wing plant, there are about 550 manufacturing workers and about 30 in the R&D department. Coplan said the Capital Safety, which is owned by the private equity firm KKR, produces 20 to 30 innovations and new products a year. It has sales units around the world. And every year, hundreds of job superintendents, safety directors and other specialist workers visit Capital Safety training facilities in Red Wing, Texas and California for certification courses in fall protection.

The recovery of the construction industry has been good for Capital Safety's business. Coplan said the firm is seeing growth across every one of its market segments, though. In Minnesota, there were 105,500 people working in construction in April, the latest month for which data is available. That's up from 99,000  a year ago but still well below the pre-recession peak in 2005 and 2006 of 131,000.

About 350 workers at the Vikings stadium site in Minneapols watched the Capital Safety presentation on Wednesday. Photo from Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority.

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