Rigid rail fall arrest systems provide shorter free-fall distances, reduced risk of secondary fall injuries such as swinging into obstacles, and no negative impact on a second worker in the event of a fall. (Gorbel Inc. photo)

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Creating a Fall Protection Plan and a Safer Workplace

Falls regularly top the list of workplace dangers each year that insurance companies and government regulators track. Now more than ever, companies face the task of developing a comprehensive fall protection plan. Designed to address workplace hazards, a fall protection plan is critically important both for the safety of employees and the company's bottom line. If companies ultimately want to keep their workplace safer, they need to pinpoint fall protection goals, identify and select a fall protection system that best fits their specific application and keep their chosen system safely and effectively operating.

Identifying Fall Protection Goals
One of the first and most important steps for implementing an effective fall protection plan is determining your goals. Companies must understand what they are specifically trying to change about the work environment before moving the project forward. Identifying a timeframe for completion is also important, as it allows companies to plan other parts of the process.

Most fall prevention initiatives aim to eliminate or reduce the number of falls in a given facility over a specific timeframe. OSHA requires 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. Other organizations offer a wealth of information to help companies zero in on their fall protection needs and goals.

Selecting a Fall Protection System
Once a company determines the need for a fall protection system, there are four options to evaluate: eliminate, prevent, restrain, and arrest:

  • Eliminate: If a company can eliminate the fall hazard by simply changing a work process, that is always the preferable solution and offers the most security because the risk is completely removed.
  • Prevent: When the risk cannot be eliminated, companies should look to prevent the risk with equipment such as guardrails, gates or fencing. Companies already using passive fall protection solutions, such as elimination or prevention are encouraged to challenge their processes in an effort to find potential risks. Challenging the process often helps organizations determine that while they have fall protection tactics in place, a safer and more reliable option, like a restraint or arrest system, may be appropriate.Restraint: Restraint systems serve one of two functions: They either keep workers from reaching an area where the fall hazard exists or enable workers to perform their duties from the height required while attached to the system. Workers are restrained using a harness attached to a fixed-length lanyard that is then attached to an anchorage system. In general, when a work environment allows for a restraint, it is the preferred method of fall protection because a fall is completely avoided.Arrest: Fall arrest systems stop the fall in a controlled manner with either wire rope or rigid rail. Rigid rail fall arrest systems provide shorter free-fall distances, reduced risk of secondary fall injuries such as swinging into obstacles, and no negative impact on a second worker in the event of a fall. Wire rope systems require additional fall clearance due to the initial sag of the wire. The dynamic sag, or the stretch of the rope during a fall, adds to this distance.

When a worker falls on a wire rope system, the wire’s sag will cause the trolley to slide to the center of the nearest two supports, creating a risk for the worker to collide with nearby obstacles after a fall. Rigid-rail systems allow for longer distances between supports without sag, reducing both material and installation costs. When a worker falls on a wire rope system, there is a risk for a sudden pull on the rope, which could have a jarring effect on those working on the same system. Rigid-rail fall arrest systems provide uninterrupted protection for additional workers on the same system. In the event of one worker’s fall, the rigid-rail system does not bend or deflect like a wire rope system, thus eliminating the risk to another worker and allowing other workers on the system to continue moving freely and safely. Because a fellow worker on the systems remains unharmed and mobile, he or she has the ability to assist in the rescue of the fallen worker.

Incorporating Fall Protection into the Workplace
With goals determined and a fall protection system chosen, companies are then 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.

All workers using the system must be trained prior to employing any fall protection methods. Training should enable workers to identify potential fall hazards as they arise, determine which products to use in specific work environments, demonstrate proper anchoring procedures, pinpoint how to inspect and maintain fall protection equipment, and demonstrate procedures and the proper wearing of fall protection equipment. A rescue plan should also be developed and practiced to ensure safety, should a fall occur.

Because no system is fail-safe, rescue planning is a necessary aspect of every fall protection plan. This section should strive to minimize the time between a fall occurrence and getting medical attention to the fallen worker. This step, while daunting to consider, 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 vital 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.

If the rescue is from a confined space, the provisions of OSHA regulation 1910.146 and ANSI Z117.1 must be followed. Although a rescue plan and the means to implement it must always be in place, it is a good idea to provide means for user evacuation without assistance of others. This will usually reduce the time required to get everyone to a safe place and reduce or prevent risk to rescuers.

The final step in the process is ongoing inspections. OHSA 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.

A competent person 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."

Any extreme condition that may have occurred since the last maintenance procedure, including a fall event, should be reported to the proper supervisor and an evaluation made to determine whether the maintenance schedule requires modification.

Ultimately, no system is foolproof. But with the right education, training, awareness, and equipment, the workplace can be a safer environment for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 OHS 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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