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June 29, 2016
Tips for addressing the hazards of work on or over water from FACE

Sometimes a job that’s only moderately hazardous on the ground becomes dangerous because of where you have to be to do it. Most commonly, this warning applies to work done at elevation. For example, painting is more dangerous when you have to do it from a ladder; trimming vegetation is more likely to get you killed when you’re 75 feet up, hanging from the trunk of a palm tree.

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But heights are not the only work condition that is inherently hazardous. Work done on or over water also adds a layer of hazard that wouldn’t otherwise be present.

If you have workers whose work happens to be done on or over water, they’ll need training and equipment for both sets of hazards—the hazards of the job task and the hazards of working on or over water. An employer in La Quinta failed to provide such protections, and an employee who was cutting weeds in a golf course lake subsequently lost his life.

Practice Tip

You don’t have to reinvent the boating safety wheel; many communities offer boating safety courses that your workers can attend.

Weed whacking on the water

Jose Juan Vallejo was 45 years old and had worked for 10 years in lake management. When his boss left one company to go to a different lake management company, Vallejo went along.

On September 16, 2014, Vallejo arrived at the PGA West golf course in La Quinta at 5:30 a.m. He planned to spend the day clearing weeds from a 4.5-acre lake on the Jack Nicklaus Private Course.

Vallejo used a small aluminum boat, a length of rope, and a poled net to “corral” the weeds. In corralling, workers drop a length of rope into the water in a circle and then use it to pull underwater weeds to the shoreline, where they can be raked out and disposed of. The poled net was used as an oar.

Vallejo made several passes around the lake as the day progressed. At around 1:45 p.m., he made his final pass of the day. Five coworkers stood along the shoreline, waiting to rake out the leaves Vallejo corralled. When he was about 90 feet offshore, the boat capsized, spilling him into the water.

While Vallejo struggled, four of the workers on the shore entered the water, swimming toward him and the boat. They couldn’t swim very well because of the vegetation in the lake, and before they could reach him, Vallejo slipped beneath the water. They could not find him. The sheriff’s dive team recovered Vallejo’s body later that evening, tangled in weeds about 8 feet below the surface.

Protecting workers on the water

California’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) investigated the incident and made a number of recommendations for preventing similar incidents, including:

  • Providing personal flotation devices (PFDs). Workers who are on or near water that could pose a drowning risk should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFDs.

  • Including water hazards in the IIPP. Employers should include training in hazard recognition and the avoidance of unsafe conditions when working on water and using small watercraft in their injury and illness prevention programs (IIPPs).

  • Using the buddy system. Assigning two workers to a boat can distribute the load more evenly, reducing the risk of capsizing. In addition, if one worker falls into the water, the other can quickly throw him a life ring.

  • Providing life rings and rope. A U.S. Coast Guard-approved, 30-inch life ring, with an attached line of at least 90 feet and 600-pound capacity, should be provided and accessible when the employees’ work exposes them to the hazard of drowning.

  • Providing proper equipment for operating watercraft. Vallejo was using a skimmer as an oar. But a skimmer isn’t an oar, and it may have contributed to this accident by catching on the weeds and destabilizing the boat. Proper equipment, such as a paddle or an oar, provides better control and reduces the hazard.

  • Reducing the need to work from boats. An integrated pest management program using a combination of mechanical, operational, biological, and chemical (herbicide) techniques could have controlled these weeds and reduced the need for Vallejo to use a boat in the first place.
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