Using an external fall protection consultant to verify systems provides valuable expertise and unbiased insight.

Protecting the Past, Securing the Future

The Architect of the Capitol focuses on fall protection that meets the most current ANSI standards.

Every year, millions of tourists visit the iconic government landmarks in Washington, D.C. Undoubtedly, many visitors have wonderful memories of visiting the Library of Congress or strolling across the picturesque grounds of the U.S. Capitol. But what visitors usually don't see are the 2,600 Architect of the Capitol (AOC) employees -- including engineers, landscape architects, stonemasons, electricians, and safety specialists -- who work each day to maintain the historic Capitol campus.

Through AOC's efforts to balance safety, productivity, economics, and aesthetics, the organization has learned valuable lessons about effective fall protection implementation. AOC's work tasks and facilities may be quite different from a typical industrial or commercial organization, but there are many parallels between AOC's fall protection program and others' that are working to deliver a safe environment for visitors and employees. The lessons learned, which are discussed below, can be applied by all safety professionals to create successful fall protection solutions.

In the Beginning
In 2006, AOC Safety's staff began a process to certify the existing fall protection systems on the Capitol campus to meet ANSI Z359 standards. As the certification process started, AOC identified a number of deficiencies. To address the deficiencies effectively, AOC Safety personnel recommended design and installation of new systems, rather than modifying the existing ones.

AOC's leadership agreed the existing systems could not be safely used, and all affected parties came to the table to find effective solutions. Through this process, conflicting priorities were identified and resolved, resulting in the following valuable lessons learned.

1. Collaboration is key. Providing safe fall protection systems involves many different people in a variety of roles working together to achieve consensus. Regardless of how challenging the efforts may appear at first, safety professionals will ultimately be more successful when they reach out and engage other stakeholders in the planning and decision-making process. In doing so, safety professionals can learn from and educate their colleagues, resulting in solutions that provide safe and usable systems.

To prepare for the system replacement project, many meetings were held to solicit information from and reach consensus among AOC engineers, architects, historians, and end users as to the best path forward. All of the various professionals involved brought different viewpoints, experiences, and concerns to the discussions. Architects and historians were interested in maintaining the historic aesthetics of the buildings; engineers were concerned that new penetrations in roofs would cause other maintenance and deterioration problems. Recognizing that all desired the same outcome, the group worked together to research new technologies and to determine whether the current systems could be reused.

This spirit of collaboration blossomed at AOC, leading engineers, architects, project managers, safety professionals, and end users to actively seek out one another to better understand concerns and requirements. Safety professionals were able to articulate safety requirements, suggest solutions, and earn the respect of their colleagues. This teamwork helped the AOC understand how to integrate safety into the design process. As a result, consideration of safety has improved in all AOC projects. While it has been a four-year process, because everyone involved collectively agreed on the right path forward, the journey was as worthwhile as achieving the final results.

2. Worker input is invaluable. As members of the project team, the AOC employees who work on the roofs across the Capitol campus -- those who would use the fall protection solutions regularly -- had specific concerns. To be practical, the new systems had to be designed so employees would use them. The systems had to provide for employee safety while enabling them to complete their work in an efficient and effective manner. To maximize worker protection, the solutions had to ensure that every task could be completed without disengaging fall protection and increasing risk to life and safety.

These user concerns were extremely important and were considered as integral design requirements. Employee input should always be sought out by safety professionals, because the workers know the intimate details of the tasks they complete. Workers can tell project teams what may work and what may not, potentially avoiding redesign and retrofit difficulties in the future. Working directly with the end users of the systems proved to be a good reminder that no matter how compliant a system is, it is pointless if it isn't used. If solutions are impractical, difficult to use, or become an obstacle to getting the job done, the likelihood of proper usage drastically decreases.

3. Many factors, one solution. The Hierarchy of Controls helps safety professionals focus on the most effective and least "defeatable" fall protection solutions. However, the hierarchy of controls is a safety-focused tool that doesn’t account for the realities of productivity, budget, and aesthetics. Although safety is a critical factor, it cannot be the only one considered.

For safety professionals, it is tempting to challenge the importance of history and aesthetics in light of their mission to save lives. However, balance is required. Consider what the U.S. Capitol Building would look like today if a standard 42-inch, safety yellow guardrail were installed around the flat roof and the Dome.

Working on historic buildings always requires creativity and outside-the-box thinking. At AOC, the project team worked together to determine whether current codes could be met with the use of historic-looking materials and whether there was another option for protecting employees. In every organization, there are factors besides safety that must be considered when developing fall protection solutions.

4. Certification is critical. In hindsight, it is not surprising that the existing fall protection systems were originally thought to be compliant. At first glance, many believe fall protection can be boiled down to "ABC": Anchorage, Body Support, and Connector.

The reality is that fall protection is very complex, from both the engineering and the behavioral safety aspects. A seemingly innocent change during construction, such as moving an anchor 2 feet to avoid a roof drain, can change a system from travel restraint to fall arrest. This change has significant repercussions on the equipment, procedures, and training provided to workers.

Using an external fall protection consultant to certify systems provides valuable expertise and unbiased insight. Although AOC identified deficiencies in the existing systems, a third-party consultant helped develop a method to answer concerns, brought forth ideas on alternative means to provide fall protection, and explained regulation requirements. The consultant's third-party expertise not only provided technical information, but also helped to unite parties with differing priorities.

The Journey Continues
As a result of the shared vision of the project team and their work to proactively coordinate efforts, AOC was able to implement new fall protection systems that meet the most current ANSI standards. By employing these lessons learned, AOC is effectively addressing safety concerns on all facility projects. In addition, AOC has determined that assessing the interior building spaces for fall hazards and developing appropriate controls will further ensure the safety of its employees and property, as well as Capitol Hill visitors. This assessment will begin soon, and the AOC Safety staffers are looking forward to providing even better and safer methods to help their colleagues do their jobs.

While safety professionals strive to make their safety programs self sustaining, most require regular maintenance. Given the complexities of fall protection systems and their use, a fall protection program will stay successful only when safety professionals remain constantly engaged. Ensuring the safety of others is always worth the effort.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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