Avoiding the Fall No Employee Wants to Take

Although it is a common practice for employees to perform work while standing on ladders, it puts them at risk for injuries and should be discouraged.

A senior building maintenance employee was working on a building that was undergoing renovations. The job included the installation of an emergency exit light above a doorway. The maintenance employee was positioned on a 10-foot fiberglass stepladder. As he was rechecking the 110-volt electrical wiring using a multi-meter tester, he experienced a strong electrical shock sensation. He was reaching above and behind the light at the time and fell approximately 8 feet to the floor. He sustained a fractured left heel, as well as a compression fracture of his lower back. This employee was hospitalized, according to the OSHA accident report.

Workplace falls are a serious safety concern for employers, whether injuries occur on the same level or from elevated work surfaces. This is due to the fact that injuries resulting from workplace falls often affect multiple body parts -- such as backs, knees, ankles, wrists, and heads -- and require longer recovery times, or worse yet, cause fatalities.

Based on a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2006, the median days away from work for falls to a lower level was 14 days -- the second-longest non-fatal injuries involving days away from work, behind repetitive motion injuries. The three most common types of injuries were:

• Fractures, which resulted in workers being out of work the longest, 28 days;

• Sprains and strains, which resulted in a median of eight days away from work; and

• Bruises and contusions, which resulted in four days away from work.

Although many factors contribute to workplace falls (such as wet floors, poor lighting, cluttered aisles, ladder/ scaffold collapses, and improper use of equipment), most fatal injuries are the result of falls to a lower level. As an employer, it is your responsibility to keep employees safe. Focusing on jobs that involve high risks and taking steps to minimize exposure to hazards with the greatest potential to cause severe injury or death is key to reducing occupational injuries and illnesses.

What can you do to protect employees from falls at elevated heights?

Provide Proper Equipment Select equipment that meets your needs. Conducting an assessment of your facility and deciding what type of equipment is necessary to accomplish required tasks is an important first step. Portable ladders vary in design and sizes, so looking at the construction, care, and use of wood or metal ladders can ensure safety under normal conditions.

Think about height. As you walk around your facility, consider the height employees are expected to reach to perform maintenance tasks or repairs. OSHA is very specific when it comes to ladder lengths:

• Stepladders must not exceed 20 feet in length.

• Single ladders or individual sections of ladders must not exceed 30 feet in length.

• Two-section ladders must not exceed 60 feet in length.

• Trestle ladders must not exceed 20 feet in length.

If the height of a platform from which employees are expected to work is beyond the ladder length requirements, consider providing powered lifts, such as scissors lifts or aerial lifts, to protect employees from falls.

When selecting the height of a ladder, make sure to consider the highest standing level on the ladder. You can find this information on the label. Also, consider the working length that is needed to permit the required 3 feet that must be above the upper access level. Never allow makeshift ladders constructed out of chairs, benches, or boxes to be used.

Think about weight. When selecting a ladder for your facility, consider the working load, which includes the weight of the user and the materials and tools the ladder will have to support. Checking the labels on commercial ladders for duty ratings to find out the maximum weight capacities will help determine the types of ladders that must be purchased.

Ladders have been designed in five duty classifications:

• Type IAA Special Duty rated at 375 pounds

• Type IA Extra Heavy-Duty rated at 300 pounds

• Type I Heavy-Duty rated at 250 pounds

• Type II Medium-duty rated at 225 pounds

• Type III Light-duty rated at 200 pounds

You should also consider how often the ladder will be used and ensure it is not overloaded. Keep in mind that portable ladders are designed to hold one person at a time, so two employees should never be on a ladder simultaneously.

Think about job activity. Provide portable ladders to enable employees to reach working platforms. Although it is a common practice for employees to perform work while standing on a ladder, it puts them at risk for fall-related injuries and should be discouraged.

In addition, consider the types of jobs that must be performed. A ladder placed near power lines should be made of wood or fiberglass because metal ladders conduct electricity.

Think about maintenance. Keeping equipment in good condition requires care and maintenance.

Inspect ladders when they are first purchased and periodically before they are used by employees. It is important to look for damage to rails, rungs, connections, and overall structural defects.

Employees should be aware that proper handling and care of a ladder is necessary. For instance, store ladders in a safe area, on racks, and protect them from exposure to heat, corrosives, oils, and grease. If a ladder is damaged, take it out of service until it has been repaired by either the maintenance department or the manufacturer or is discarded.

Require Fall Protection
Requiring employees to use the right tools for the job is a critical element of safety. One of these tools is the use of fall protection systems when working on elevated surfaces. Fall protection systems serve one of two basic functions:

• They prevent or restrain a worker from falling or

• They safely stop or arrest a worker who falls.

Guardrails are the primary fall protection system for general-industry applications because they prevent employees from falling to lower levels. In addition, toeboards are often included to prevent the fall of materials to a lower level and to keep an employee’s feet from slipping over an edge.

However, OSHA has determined that other systems can be used if guardrails are not feasible or impractical, such as:

Handrail and stair rail systems, which provide a handhold for support and assist employees going up or down stairways, ramps, or other walking/working surfaces. Stair rail systems protect employees from falling over the edge of an open sided stairway.

Designated areas, used to warn employees when they approach an unprotected side or edge.

Hole covers. Guard floor openings of a least 2 inches in size to prevent employees from falling to a lower level. They must be capable of supporting the maximum intended load.

Safety net systems. Designed to catch employees who have fallen off a work surface, they bring falling workers to a stop before they contact surfaces or structures below.

Ladder cages, which fasten to a ladder’s side rails, to one side rail, or to other structures, enclosing the employee in the climbing area of a fixed ladder.

Ramps and bridging devices allow the safe passage of employees, vehicles, or both between different surface levels or over gaps.

Personal fall arrest systems stop an employee after a fall from a working level. A system consists of an anchor, connector, body harness, and lanyard and may include deceleration devices, lifelines, or some combination of these.

Before making a decision on a fall protection system, think about the hazards in your facility that must be eliminated. Evaluate the features and benefits of each system and choose the best approach for protecting employees from falls.

Train, Train, and Train Again
Communication is the key to helping employees understand the hazards associated with elevated work surfaces, as well as the necessary precautions they must take to stay safe. To do this, it is important to communicate information in a way that helps them understand it, apply it, and remember it. This takes planning on your part and the ability to focus on meaningful information that will help employees make informed decisions about their behaviors.

Training topics to cover:

Proper use of a ladder. Employees should know the proper construction, use, placement, and care in handling ladders, as well as the maximum intended load-carrying capacities.

Hazards of stairs and elevated work surfaces. Employees need to understand how to prevent slip and fall accidents on stairs by:

• Using handrails

• Making sure materials being carried are not blocking the line of view

• Keeping stairs free of clutter and water

• Reporting unsafe conditions promptly, including broken stair treads, floor boards, or handrails

Use of fall protection systems. Employees should know the correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, and disassembling the fall protection systems being used.

Consider the Bottom Line
Taking the necessary precautions on the front end to prevent slips, trips, and falls from elevated work surfaces can help to reduce injuries that can significantly impact workers’ compensation costs, lost work time, and employee morale. Although workplace safety depends on many factors, being proactive and recognizing and eliminating known hazards, as well as training employees, are important steps you can take to avoid the fall that no employee wants to take.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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