Occupational Health & Safety

According to ANSI standards, fall protection should be inspected by the user before each use. (Gorbel photo)

Creating a Safer Workplace

As 2013 comes to a close, insurance and federal regulatory agencies are sure to be compiling year-end statistics and reports. While some figures may be surprising, one that is likely to stay true to past years' results is the incidence of injuries and fatalities from workplace falls.

Each year, falls from heights ranging from just a few inches to 120 stories account for more than 30 percent of all fall-related injuries and work-related deaths. Such injuries not only endanger the integrity of the workplace and the safety of employees, but also cost businesses millions of dollars each year in medical expenses, lost wages, and lower productivity.

Therefore, fall protection planning and the correct fall protection training are essential to ensuring the safety and health of your employees and your company. Developing a comprehensive fall protection and training plan is the right decision for the safety of employees, the financial health of the company, and the integrity of the product.

Before a company can implement a plan or begin training, it must first decide what type of fall protection to employ. The most foolproof form of fall protection is simply to eliminate the fall hazard, which in some facilities can be done by changing the workflow process. Often, however, the hazard cannot be eliminated, meaning that some sort of safety protection must be added. In its simplest form, this could be a railing, or it could be more involved, such as a restraint system or possibly personal fall protection equipment, including a harness, lanyard, and rigid rail anchor systems.

Restraint systems prevent workers from falling by keeping them from reaching an area where the fall hazard exists. Restraint is typically the preferred fall protection system when the environment allows because a fall is completely avoided. The downside, however, is that once in place, restraint systems are inflexible, unable to accommodate multiple workers, and limited to the length of the system.

Fall arrest systems allow the worker to fall--just not very far. The systems enable workers to safely perform their duties from the height required while tied off to the system. The systems are professionally engineered and typically custom designed for the specific work environment.

There are two types of fall arrest systems: those that use a wire rope to support a worker and those that use a rigid rail. Wire rope systems allow the worker to fall into a previously inspected clearance area, preventing injury with a harness, trolley, and wire rope lifeline. Such systems require additional fall clearance due to the initial sag or stretch of the wire. A rigid rail fall arrest system allows workers to fall with the peace of mind that their fall will be stopped using a harness attached to a custom-engineered support. Rigid rail systems can accommodate longer distances between supports, reducing both material and installation costs. These systems provide uninterrupted protection for additional workers on the same system.

The Importance of Training
While choosing the correct type of fall protection is critical, training employees on how to properly use the chosen system is equally important. A successful fall protection training program ensures that companies and all of their employees know what fall hazards exist in their workplace, which products and equipment can be used in each work space, how to anchor a worker to the system properly, how to wear a fall protection harness correctly, and how to inspect and maintain fall protection equipment so the system can continue to provide safety and peace of mind.

Most fall protection systems must be customized to fit the facility at hand. As such, it is also important that companies decide what they want to achieve through fall protection. A common goal is to eliminate any serious injury or fatality related to falls. Do they also want to decrease the rate of injury by 50 percent, or perhaps 70 percent? Creating such goals will allow companies to select the correct system and, from there, to develop the correct training regimen.

Completing a workplace assessment is a useful way for companies to identify these goals and pick a fall protection system. A number of factors need to be considered when evaluating a workplace facility, including what other systems already may be in place, floor space availability, ceiling space availability, and budget. If a facility already employs a wealth of floor-mounted equipment, a ceiling-mounted system may be most practical and out of the way. How many workers will be using the system at a given time is another factor to keep in mind.

Adhering to OSHA and ANSI Standards
Industry regulations also play a role in choosing a fall protection system. OSHA mandates the 4-foot rule. The 4-foot rule refers to Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations (29 CFR) and seeks to ensure and enforce safe and healthful working conditions for general industry, construction, and maritime trades. Employers are responsible for providing their workers with a place of employment free from recognized safety and health hazards. OSHA enforces regulation 1926, Subpart M for construction and regulation 1910, Subparts D and F for general industry, which require fall protection be provided at: 4 feet in general industry; 5 feet in shipyards; 6 feet in the construction industry; 8 feet in longshoring operations; or any height when working over dangerous equipment and machinery, regardless of the fall distance. If companies have workers working at heights in any of these circumstances they are legally required to implement a suitable fall protection system.

While considering fall protection, companies also should be thinking about who can oversee the system, because industry regulation agencies (including OSHA's and the American National Standards Institut's) require that a competent person must verify the required maintenance procedures have been properly followed. Such a person, as defined by OSHA, is someone who is "capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them." This person is usually also responsible for ongoing inspections. OSHA requires a visual inspection for wear and damage prior to each use, mandating that any deterioration or defective components be removed from service. According to ANSI, fall protection equipment should be inspected by the user before each use and inspected at least once a year by a competent person.

Elements of a Fall Protection Plan
In considering different fall protection options, companies are actually laying the framework for their formal fall protection plan. Once goals have been determined and a fall protection system chosen, companies then are required to write a detailed and site-specific plan on how the system will be used to maintain productivity while protecting employees. The plan should outline the fall protection measures that will be employed, spell out a rescue plan for worst-case scenarios, identify who is responsible for overall supervision and training, and include an overview of training objectives.

Although all parts of the plan are important, companies are advised to pay special attention to the training and rescue plan sections of the document, because both can be the deciding factors in the effectiveness of a fall protection system. The rescue plan section should strive to minimize the time between a fall occurrence and getting medical attention to the fallen worker. This step is vitally important to the safety of a company's workers and also the company’s bottom line.

As with other parts of the fall protection plan, a thorough rescue program should be established prior to using fall protection equipment. It is of critical importance that the plan be understood and that all workers feel confident implementing such a program. The plan must take into account the equipment and special training necessary for a prompt rescue under all foreseeable conditions. The rescue plan aspect of fall protection should be especially emphasized during employee training.

Transit Agency Reduces Fall Risks
A number of organizations have successfully addressed and implemented fall protection systems and training initiatives. One such company is a municipal transportation authority for a major Northeast city. The transit authority was in the process of replacing old buses with more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. While fuel costs and emissions were decreasing, the authority discovered that its maintenance employees would regularly be climbing up to the top of the new buses to service the top-mounted electric battery packs. At the time, there was no protection in place to prevent employees from falling.

After assessing the workplace, the authority found that it didn't have room in the facility to support the beams necessary for a wire rope system, nor enough distance for the wire rope to stop the fall before the workers would hit the floor. The solution was installing four identical, ceiling-mounted monorail systems with self-retracting lanyards. The dual-trussed monorail is 39 feet long, which fully covers the length of the buses. It allows more than one worker to be on the roof of a bus and permits two workers to pass each other without disconnecting the lanyards from their harnesses.

After going through training, all workers now can access the battery packs on the roof as needed. A worker uses a hook to pull down the lanyard and attaching it to his or her harness. The transit authority is now able to complete its operations safely and efficiently, and management has the peace of mind of a rescue plan if needed.

Of course, no fall protection system can guarantee safety. Yet with the proper education, planning, equipment, training, and awareness, virtually any facility can be transformed from hazardous to safe and safety conscious.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Kevin Duhamel, Gorbel Tether Track™ Product Manager, is a North American product manager with Gorbel Inc. He has more than 15 years of safety industry experience and expertise and has specialized in fall protection since 2008. He is a certified fall protection–competent trainer and inspector.

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