3M Faces Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Self-Retracting Lifeline Failure

The family of a construction worker who died in a May 2018 accident has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against 3M over the company’s DBI SALA Nano-Lok Self-Retracting Lifeline harness. According to allegations raised in the lawsuit, 3M’s safety harness is defective and failed to protect construction worker Walter Burrows from a 35-foot fall. Burrows was working on the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s $3.7 billion light-rail project in Seattle at the time of the accident, and while he survived the fall, he succumbed to his injuries and died later that day in the hospital. If someone you love died on the job because of an allegedly defective or dangerous product, contact an experienced product liability lawyer as soon as possible to find out if you qualify for a wrongful death lawsuit.

How Does a Self-Retracting Lifeline Work?

According to the 3M website, the company’s DBI-SALA Nano-Lok Self-Retracting Lifeline is “an easy-to-use, ergonomically designed self-retracting lifeline (SRL) that can be directly connected to most harnesses.” The lifeline is designed to detect a sudden increase in descent, such as a fall from a platform on a construction site, and engage an automatic speed brake to stop the fall. Falls are one of the four most common causes of worker injury and death in the construction industry, known collectively as the “Fatal Four.” In fact, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website, “Falls are the leading cause of death in construction,” followed by struck by object, electrocutions and caught-in/between accidents. OSHA reports that out of a total of 1,008 construction fatalities in 2018, 338 were caused by fatal falls to a lower level.

Preventing Fatal Falls on Construction Sites

Deadly falls from heights on construction sites are preventable accidents. When workers are provided with the appropriate fall protection equipment and are trained on the proper set-up and safe use of the equipment, they can significantly reduce their risk of being involved in a fall accident. Unfortunately, even workers who are supplied with the right equipment and who use that equipment as directed can be injured or killed in a construction site accident if the equipment malfunctions or is otherwise faulty or defective. Malfunctioning or defective equipment causes thousands of construction site injuries every year and the surviving family members of many construction workers killed on the job in the U.S. have sued for compensation to cover the cost of medical and funeral expenses, the loss of financial support, and the emotional pain and suffering caused by their loved one’s death.

The Burrows family’s wrongful death lawsuit claims that Burrows’ employer, Kiewit-Hoffman East Link Constructors, instructed Burrows to use 3M’s Nano-Lok Self-Retracting Lifeline harness, based on the representations 3M made about the safety of the device in its promotional and training materials. Furthermore, the lawsuit claims that Burrows used the harness correctly by attaching the lifeline to his harness and to a secured anchor point on the elevated platform where he was working. However, despite his proper use of 3M’s personal fall arrest system, Burrows’ lifeline was severed on the beveled concrete edge of the platform he was working on and he fell 35 feet to his death.

3M Accused of Failure to Warn

Attorneys representing the Burrows family allege in the wrongful death lawsuit that 3M never warned that its self-retracting lifeline could fail to work properly on or near a beveled edge. For its part, 3M is refusing to take any responsibility for Walter Burrows’ fatal construction fall. In fact, the company argues that, if there is someone to blame for Burrows’ death, it should be:

  • Kiewit, for failing to provide Burrows with the proper safety equipment, training and instruction
  • Sound Transit for failing to maintain a safe job site
  • Burrows for failing to select the proper safety equipment
  • Burrows’ co-workers and supervisors for contributing to an unsafe work environment
  • Any third party that failed to provide Burrows with the proper fall protection equipment
  • Any other manufacturers, suppliers or distributors whose products contributed to Burrows’ accident

In September 2019, more than a year after Burrows’ death, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued a hazard alert about the risk of fall protection lifelines being severed by exposed edges. According to the notice, “In Washington State, two workers fell to their deaths due to their self-retracting lifelines (SRLs) being severed in separate fall incidents.” The alert indicates that “Lifelines anchored horizontally necessitate extra safety precautions when working near metal or concrete edges along decking, floors, roofs, platforms, formwork, and other surfaces.”