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Workers Not Always Using Their Fall Protection Equipment?
Despite alarming statistics that indicate falls from height remain the number one cause of death in the construction industry—accounting for more than 36 percent of all work-related deaths in 2013, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—many workers continue to avoid using proper fall protection equipment, including their safety harness, each and every time they work at height.
Year after year, the number one most frequently cited OSHA violation is the lack of proper fall protection, indicating that the compliance challenges employers have experienced in the past will continue to be the challenges they will deal with in the future, unless something radically changes in the industry.
The High Cost of Worker Non-Compliance
When workers choose to work at height without wearing their harness, even during a task that takes just a few minutes or occurs at a low height, the risks—and costs—can be enormous.
Fall-related injuries and deaths can be devastating on a physical, emotional, and financial level for the worker, the worker’s family, and the company. In addition to the loss of life or injury, a fall can easily cripple or bankrupt a business.
According to the American Society of Safety Engineers, more than $40 billion in workers' compensation benefits is paid every year by employers and their insurers—nearly $500 per covered employee. So getting workers to wear their safety harness and use their fall protection equipment is crucial.
Traditional Methods Companies Have Used to Increase Compliance
To reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by falls from height, fall protection manufacturers, safety consultants, regulatory agencies, and construction companies have dedicated enormous resources to encourage worker compliance, including:
- developing safer fall protection harnesses
- offering improved fall protection training
- enforcing stricter standards and regulations
Safer Fall Protection Harnesses
One way to encourage workers to use their personal fall arrest system when they work at height is to develop safer harnesses.
Harnesses have greatly evolved since the early 20th century. The first at-height protective gear included body belts worn around the waist to protect utility linemen during pole climbing; although better than no protection, body belts could cause spinal and midsection injury from transmitted fall arrest forces; workers could also slip out of the belt during a fall. By the 1940s, the first full-body harness was developed based on military parachute harnesses used by paratroopers; the harness was much safer and more effective than the body belt, but heavy materials such as leather and cotton, as well as bulky construction, made the harnesses uncomfortable for workers to wear.
Safety harnesses have continued to evolve, using designs based on recreational harnesses and receiving input from mechanical engineers and industrial designers to improve safety and ergonomics. Depending on the manufacturer, current full body harnesses can include such features as additional back lumbar support, positioning rings, tool carrying options, and specialty materials and construction offering fire resistance or arc flash protection, and can protect workers in even the most precarious work situations.
However, even with the development of much safer full body harnesses, achieving worker compliance remains challenging. According to Oregon OSHA's Fall Protection for the Construction Industry, "We need protection because even those of us with experience working at heights can lose our balance or grip; we can slip, trip, or misstep at any time. We may think that our reflexes will protect us, but we're falling before we know it, and we don't have to fall far to be seriously injured. We’ve been falling since Day One. Until we get better at landing, we'll need protection from falling."
Improved Fall Protection Training
In addition to offering safer equipment, training workers on how to correctly use that equipment increases the likelihood that they will.
Comprehensive fall protection training, fall arrest training, and industrial rescue courses offer companies the right kind of training for their particular trade or unique industry’s work environment. Training is also offered in a variety of formats, including on-site demonstrations and hands-on experiences, video and online training, and specialized training customized for the work site.
The more informed and prepared workers can be about the hazards of working at height, how to properly use personal fall arrest systems, and how to avoid falls, the more likely workers are to comply and to safely work at height. However, even though fall protection training is available at a variety of price points and levels of customization, workers are not always as prepared as they could be. According to occupational safety and health magazine EHS Today, "Unfortunately, many training programs rely on a worker watching a video and signing a roster."
Enhanced Regulations and Standards
Developing standards for and enforcing the use of fall protection equipment—for both employers and workers—is another way to improve worker compliance.
OSHA first published fall protection measures for general industry regulations in 1971; fall protection regulations have been and will continue to be a priority for OSHA.
As important as legal regulations are to the industry, Thomas E. Kramer, president of the International Society for Fall Protection, says, "One of the most important steps to increasing safety for workers at heights is for workers to take personal responsibility for their own safety, rather than having safety imposed upon them."
Why Is Worker Compliance So Challenging?
Every one of the above initiatives has helped; each has been a crucial piece of the puzzle in improving worker compliance while working at height. But the question remains: if safety harnesses and fall protection equipment save lives, why aren’t workers consistently using them?
As yearly statistics continue to show, getting workers to use their fall protection equipment—every single time while working at height—is still a huge challenge. No matter how safe fall protection equipment is or how thorough the education, trainings, and regulations, if the equipment isn't being used, the worker remains at risk. So Capital Safety resolved to find out why, beginning its research by having in-depth conversations with workers in the field, safety managers, and ergonomics specialists. Over and over, we heard the same three major complaints; according to experts, employers, and workers, safety harnesses:
1. are too heavy and uncomfortable when they are loaded with tools and gear
2. are too hot
3. get in the way of doing the job
Clearly, it was time for the modern-day safety harness to evolve. For decades, the primary focus of safety harnesses and worker compliance was to protect workers from falls, while comfort and worker productivity got pushed to the back burner.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle in Harness Compliance
The final piece of the puzzle in improving worker safety harness compliance is clear: Offer workers a harness they want to wear.
A truly ergonomic safety harness also translates to good business for employers. A comfortable harness means:
- Improved safety. When fall protection equipment is comfortable to wear, workers are more likely to put it on day after day. The safest harness is the one that's comfortable enough that workers choose to wear it.
- Improved productivity. Keeping workers comfortable on the job directly contributes to their happiness and work satisfaction, which translates to significant productivity gains for employers.
- Improved worker retention. When the work is challenging and days at height are long, worker satisfaction greatly depends on how comfortable they are, both on the job and once they have returned home at the end of the day. An exhausted worker feeling the aches and pains from the strain of a poorly designed harness has one more reason to look for their next work opportunity elsewhere.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Tim Thompson is the Product Manager for soft goods in North America with Capital Safety, a global leader in fall protection. Capital Safety has recently been acquired by 3M. The combination of Capital Safety's industry-leading fall protection products and training courses with 3M’s brand in personal protective equipment and global capability will provide a broader array of solutions to customers.