Preparing for the Turnaround

Here's how to improve the overall fall protection program and prepare returning workers to get back in the fall protection habit.

In June, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reported that April 2010 saw a strong construction spending rebound. AGC noted the gains were driven primarily by private residential construction and public construction, but private nonresidential construction also increased significantly. The 2.7 percent increase in spending compared to March was the largest monthly increase in 10 years. Despite the positive outlook, the association's chief economist commented that, beyond the stimulus, the figures show how uneven and fragile the construction recovery remains. He went on to state that, assuming the economy continues to expand, privately funded construction should experience a rebound beginning in 2011.

Now is the time to prepare returning workers to get back in the fall protection habit.It's probably safe to say there is cautious optimism in the industry, but whether the turnaround will occur this year, next year, or beyond is up for debate. And because there's so little certainty about when the rebound will happen, companies should start preparing now. Although many contractors have taken a wait-out-the-storm approach, the wise ones are using the slowdown to their advantage to improve their practices. Now is the time to review and improve safety programs to establish the benchmark for moving the company forward. With safety records being such an important factor in the bidding process for construction projects, contractors can't afford not to improve.

Fall protection plays a major role in safety programs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 100,000 fall-related incidents per year in private industry. In the construction industry, falls are the number one cause of worker death. The following will provide some tips on how to improve the overall fall protection program, as well as how to prepare returning workers to get back in the fall protection habit.

Improving the Fall Protection Program
Contractors that have had problems with compliance rates or have had to deal with the consequences of a fall or near miss should immediately evaluate their fall protection safety programs. Every contractor can benefit from reflecting on its safety program, identifying what is working and what isn't, and developing and implementing new practices and policies.

Groundwork
An ideal starting point would be to send the safety director or person in charge of the fall protection program to a training course designed specifically for program administrators. These classes, available through manufacturers, cover topics such as industry regulations; fall hazard surveys; fall protection system selection and equipment maintenance criteria; development of written fall protection procedures, rescue procedures, and training programs; and accident/incident/near miss investigations. They provide a good opportunity for the director to get a very thorough understanding of how to develop, implement, and manage the working parts of a fall protection program.

In addition to the information learned in the program administrator training, contractors are advised to update their knowledge base with regard to advances in fall protection equipment. There have been many equipment innovations in the past few years that, as a whole, are making work at height safer, easier, and more productive. Equipment is becoming more comfortable, more intuitive, and in many cases more affordable. Educate yourself on how these advances can improve the way the company does things. Don't just rely on information from the Internet, but get a hands-on demonstration from a fall protection expert or distributor. You also should attend fall protection sessions at industry conferences and visit manufacturers' booths, and be sure to read the occupational health and safety trade publications on a regular basis. This should be an ongoing process because new regulations, equipment, and ideas are always being introduced.

Focus Areas
Once you've completed some initial research, apply the knowledge gained to your fall protection program. There are three main areas to focus on when evaluating your program, including fall hazard surveys, rescue, and inspection.

Each different fall hazard at a job site must be analyzed individually, and documentation should include a description of the hazard, a sketch of the configuration, how much exposure workers have to the hazard, height of a potential fall, control method, equipment to be used, and rescue procedure. Although standard hazards are present at job sites of a similar nature -- steel erection or concrete form work, for example -- be sure to do an individual site assessment prior to each new project to evaluate any new or unique hazard that may be present. In addition, reevaluate the control method for each "standard" fall hazard identified in the analysis. Considering the hierarchy of fall protection (see the sidebar), are there better ways of controlling the hazard since the assessment was conducted? Are there newer, safer products that should be used?

Usually the most deficient element of a fall protection program is the rescue plan. Rescue plans are rarely comprehensive, if they exist at all, because many contractors believe emergency services will be able to get a suspended worker down or the worker will be able to pull himself or herself to safety. A rescue plan is a required portion of any fall protection program and is an extension of the fall hazard survey. In addition to identifying how, specifically, the worker will be protected from falls at a given fall hazard, the survey should address how a worker who does fall will be brought to safety. Who will perform the rescue? What equipment will he/she use? Where is that equipment located? What is the incident reporting procedure? Who will ensure the equipment involved is taken out of service?

Prompt rescue -- typically defined as within four to six minutes and no longer than 15 minutes from a fall event -- is a necessity because of the potential for injuries. In fact, OSHA regulations require the provision of medical aid within four minutes of a fall event. Professional services never can guarantee assistance within this timeframe, so contractors must have a plan in place, as well as trained rescue personnel on job sites.

Equipment inspection is another area that usually needs improvement. Regulations clearly state that fall protection equipment needs to be inspected regularly per manufacturers' instructions. Even though typically this is an inconvenient and manual, paper-based recordkeeping process, equipment inspections must be done regularly.

With the extra time afforded by the slowdown, this is your opportunity to ensure all equipment is inspected and in good working condition and to establish an ongoing inspection plan that eases the process moving forward. Make sure that you won't have to wait for the next recession to get in compliance again. One of the ways to do this is to move from a paper-based system to an electronic system. Electronic tracking equipment and programs, some specifically designed for fall protection equipment, can manage the recordkeeping for you. These systems are beneficial because they automate the process and reduce time spent on inspections and inventory tracking. Whether using an electronic system or not, establish a consistent and convenient way to ensure inspections are done on time and accurately recorded.

Worker Training
Finally, don't forget worker training. A lot of eager workers will be anxious to prove themselves diligent, hard-working and productive, and if they see safety equipment as a hindrance, they may forgo it. It is therefore important to instill the value of fall protection safety as non-negotiable in your company. This is best accomplished by providing refresher training on the company's fall protection and rescue program, industry regulations, fall hazard recognition, and on proper equipment use and inspection -- particularly any new equipment the company is using.

In addition to the refresher training, find creative ways to monitor and encourage compliance. Provide consistent reminders to employees about the importance of safety and strictly enforce company policies.

The point of these tips is not to kill time, but to establish processes that will be implemented regularly and consistently. Don't just reevaluate fall hazard surveys and catch up on inspections during downturns; find ways to make these tasks efficient and easy to implement on a recurring basis, whether during the middle of a recession or the middle of a boom. Monitor these processes and use the data to respond appropriately with modifications to the fall protection program. The program will be most successful if it is a top-of-mind, working program driven by a company that strives for constant improvement and worker safety.

Fall Protection Hierarchy
The best way to control any fall hazard is to engineer out the hazard if possible. This is not always feasible, but another solution would be to change procedures so that workers are not exposed to the hazard.

If neither of these is possible, then install passive fall protection systems such as guardrails. Where this is not possible, a fall restraint system should be used to prevent a worker from reaching the fall hazard. A fall restraint system does not double as a fall arrest system, so ensure the connective device is not long enough to allow a fall.

A fall arrest system should be used if there is no other way to control the fall hazard. A fall arrest system is designed to stop a fall in progress. Administrative controls such as warning signs should be the last resort, but typically these are acceptable only in extreme circumstances.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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