Implement a fall protection system that saves your employees and your budget. (Gorbel Inc. image)

Finding the Sweet Spot

Implement a fall protection system that saves your employees and your budget.

While companies big and small are always looking to become more productive, more profitable, and more efficient, most successful companies share one common priority: their employees' safety. In many industries, upholding that priority comes with the need for fall protection. Yet with regulatory requirements to meet and an often steep price tag, fall protection can seem like a daunting undertaking. Rest assured, however, with the right knowledge, implementing a fall protection system can easily fit into any company’s work flow and budget.

Legally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates that 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, and any height when working over dangerous equipment or machinery. Luckily, fall protection comes in many forms, and numerous options can be considered to protect employees.

In some instances, companies can engineer the hazard out of the workplace and eliminate the fall hazard altogether simply by changing a work process. Minor adjustments, such as moving work to the ground level or relocating panel boxes and other equipment, are simple ways to eliminate a fall hazard. When this can be done, it is always the preferable solution because the risk is completely removed. This can also be one of the more budget-friendly ways to ensure worker safety because it usually does not involve purchasing much extra equipment. However, in some cases, changing the work flow or moving equipment can be more costly than the price of other fall protection options.

In these situations--where the risk cannot be eliminated--companies should look to prevent the risk with equipment such as handrails, safety gates, guardrails, and rooftop railings. This type of equipment is generally less expensive than a custom-engineered system. However, if work processes change, such equipment may no longer protect against falls, necessitating the need for more of this equipment or a more in-depth fall protection system. As such, companies already using this type of equipment are encouraged to challenge their processes in an effort to find potential risks. Because this system cannot adapt as the company’s processes change, such preventive methods of fall protection are often not the most long-lasting of investments.

Fall Restraint and Fall Arrest Systems
For companies that have not found success with eliminating hazards or preventing falls, restraint systems can be a worthwhile budget spend. These systems can 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. Restrained workers use a harness attached to a fixed-length lanyard, which is then attached to an anchorage system. In general, if the work environment allows for a restraint system, it is the preferred method of fall protection because a fall is completely avoided. Though not compatible for multiple workers and relatively inflexible once installed, when practical, restraint systems can be a reliable and long-lasting investment.

In many instances, none of the above practices fit a company's needs or workflow. For these cases, fall arrest systems are the perfect option. Fall arrest systems stop the fall in a controlled manner with either wire rope or rigid rail. Wire rope systems require additional fall clearance due to the initial sag of the wire because the stretch of the line 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. There is also a risk for a sudden pull on the rope, which could have a jarring effect on those working on the same system. After a fall, a wire rope system must be replaced and recertified by a qualified engineer—adding to the overall cost of the system.

Rigid-rail fall arrest systems, however, stop the fall in a shorter distance by eliminating any sag. Injuries occurring after the fall, such as swinging into objects, are also minimized with rigid rail because the system doesn't sag, thereby minimizing the total fall distance. 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. As a fellow worker on the system remains unharmed and mobile, he or she has the ability to assist in the rescue of the fallen worker. Often thought of as more expensive than other fall protection methods, rigid-rail systems allow for longer distances between supports without sag, which reduces both material and installation costs.

Using Rigid Rail Systems
Many companies have found a successful balance by relying on rigid rail fall arrest systems. One such company is a major auto parts distributor. Concerns regarding the safety of the facility arose when the facility manager recognized that the maintenance employees were regularly required to climb out onto the extensive conveyor system in order to repair equipment and eliminate backups in the system. In several areas, the conveyors were suspended rather high off the ground and, with no adjacent flooring, the risk of falling was abundantly apparent.

In exploring their options for fall protection, multiple areas of curved conveyors and a floor-to-ceiling spiral conveyor in particular posed challenges and made it impossible to completely cover the conveyors with a monorail fall arrest system. The solution was to install four plain track, straight rigid rail fall arrest systems rated for two users in one of the buildings. Three of the systems are 282 feet long, and one is 102 feet long. These two-user systems cover the straight conveyors in that building. In the second building, a 340-foot straight monorail was installed to cover the straight conveyor lines feeding into multiple curved monorail sections covering the curved and spiral conveyors.

Now, when a worker is required to perform maintenance on the conveyors, he simply attaches the lanyard to his harness and has fall protection every moment he is working, regardless of the configuration of the conveyors. The workers feel safe and the company now has peace of mind knowing its employees are protected from falls.

Likewise, a track trenching and surface mining company in the Midwest requires its employees to move many large, heavy components using several 40-ton-capacity overhead bridge cranes. During the assembly, workers are often working at elevations that pose fall risks.

With the work being done on a machine, any form of passive restraint--such as handrails--was impractical. The company instead sought a permanent overhead fall arrest system but quickly realized that most permanent solutions to protect the workers from falls would become obstacles for the cranes delivering components to those workers.

In order to provide the most fall protection coverage without obstructing the crane movement, the company installed four rigid rail fall arrest systems. The systems feature dual track rails so that each track can support two workers. Two of the systems are 100 feet long and two are 150 feet, and they are supported every 50 feet by wall cantilever-style jibs. One jib per system is motorized so that it can either be easily positioned at any point in the jib's 180-degree coverage areas or folded flat against the wall. The systems were installed on opposing walls, which allowed full rectangular coverage beneath the overhead bridge cranes. According to the safety engineer, the rigid rail systems allow for more flexibility and can accommodate four operators per machine.

With their safety concern for their workers resolved, the next major test was evaluating whether the rigid rail systems would have any negative impact on productivity. With the ability to fold the systems out of the way of the overhead cranes, productivity is as high as it's ever been.

Though this was not the least expensive of all fall protection systems, the company's safety concerns and budget were best served with the investment in a rigid rail fall arrest system.

It can be easy to lose sight of what form of fall protection is truly the best fit for a work environment when balancing so many factors—productivity, profitability, safety, and budget. Yet fall protection comes in many forms, and when such systems are necessary, it is imperative to prioritize the safety objective over all others. Some companies may be able to fit fall protection into their budgets with passive fall protection. But for those who require a professionally engineered system like rigid rail fall arrest systems, it is important to remember that while such a system may be a larger investment up front, it also yields great benefits as these systems often lead to increased productivity and protect against costly accidents.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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