by Ed Starowicz, public safety risk management specialist

As the DPW Specialist, I have been reviewing PERMA member injuries that were caused by lifting manhole covers. In a 10-year observation period, there was $2.3 million in incurred liability for those injuries. The average cost of an injury is $14,838. PERMA opens approximately 15 claims a year for musculoskeletal injuries that were incurred by lifting manhole covers.

Injuries were down in 2014 and 2015, but jumped back up in 2016 & 2017 – 20 each year. The range of injuries include smashed fingers, strained backs, foot injuries and a host of others, with the size and weight of the manhole covers as the key factor. The covers range in weight from just a few pounds to up to 500 lbs., with the average weight running around 110 pounds.

In order to ensure employee safety you should initiate a positive prevention program for your staff. The program should include:

Job Hazard Analyses (JHA) completed with detail on what PPE might be required for employees.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), like work gloves, work boots, hard hats, safety glasses, ANSI-rated vests, or any other protective clothing should be made available. JHAs will help you determine where to use the PPE. Train employees on the use of the PPE, and establish the expectation that employees must use the PPE on the job site.

Assistance equipment like cover lift dolly systems that utilize rare-earth magnets allow employees to remove manhole covers with little stress and strain. If one of these systems are acquired, training and expectation for use should be initiated. The units usually cost between $1,200 and $1,800. Some municipalities have modified them to attach to the rear trailer hitch of trucks so they can lift utilizing the truck hardware. If you compare the cost of the equipment ($1,500) to the average cost of just one injury ($14,000), you see it is money well spent to prevent injuries.

If the cost is too much, and you have to rely on the commonly used assistance device called a J-hook, make certain to set expectations with your employees that manhole covers don’t always move predictably with human exertion. Many injuries have occurred where an employee tried to jerk open the cover with a J-hook, and the cover won. Have that quick tailgate talk to remind your staff that manhole covers are heavy and might not open up as expected.

And also remember the cost of your community’s assets. One PERMA member (Pop. 30,000; 23.40 sq mi) identified over 7000 manholes in their community. Since each manhole cover usually costs $125, the community owned $885,000 worth of manhole covers – a definite asset to be protected. Investing in employee safety with proper equipment can reap rewards in the maintenance and lifespan of your property.

To all my hard-working colleagues in public works and sewer departments: take the time to do your work right and avoid injury. I want to see you enjoying the summer and not nursing an injury. Remember:
Safety is Everyone’s Business!