The key is to understand just how much hands-on training and education are required for a person to return to the ground safely. (Gravitec Systems, Inc. photo)

Back to the Basics

Each of these 10 elements of fall protection must be mastered by the end user.

Every day on work sites all across the world, workers are put in situations where they are performing work at height. Any time a worker stands near an edge, climbs a tower, accesses a roof, or gets into a boom lift, there is an inherent danger of falling.

During the past 20 years, the fall protection industry has grown at a rapid pace as small manufacturers have been swallowed up by large corporate entities and fall protection has become big business. With this growth, legislative regulations and product standards have been enhanced, and great strides have occurred with respect to fall protection equipment design, quality, and performance. However, despite the advancements in the industry, workers are still being injured or dying every year from falls from height.

To many, it would seem that with the assistance of a sufficiently strong anchor, proper connecting means, and a harness there should be no deaths, and only minor injuries should result from falls from height, right? Unfortunately, the more common scenario is to see a worker lying on the ground after a fall with a nice new harness and lanyard, rather than nothing at all. Why is this? We have the technology, we have the equipment, and fall protection as a whole is not difficult to understand.

So what are the basics of fall protection? That question can be answered many different ways, depending on the person you talk to. However, when I asked that question to some of my colleagues who are familiar with all of the different aspects of fall protection, most of the answers were very consistent -- although none of the concepts are earth-shattering or new ideas, but rather are basic but important concepts of fall protection. Unfortunately, not all aspects of fall protection can be covered all of the time for every scenario. With this in mind, detailed below are 10 basic elements of successful fall protection for a quick reference tool.

Training and Education
Though this seems to be a broad principle, training and education is the cornerstone and basis of the all of the more specific items that are identified as must-know items to be safe at height. It is typically the case that the cause of a fall-related accident is directly influenced by the lack of or limited training that the victim received.

There seems to be a greater focus and reliance on the function of the equipment, so workers either are forgetting or are never trained or educated about the fundamentals of fall protection.

The key is to understand just how much hands-on training and education is required for a person to return to the ground safely. Is the drop test demonstration performed by the manufacturer's sales rep considered adequate training, or does the worker have to attend 40 hours of training in a proper classroom with proficiency checks and hands on exercises? This will, of course, be a balance that will take into account the workers' jobs, hazards to which they may be exposed, how much time is spent at height, but it is nonetheless vital to the workers' safety.

Hazard Identification
This arguably could be the most important consideration when dealing with any safety issue. If the hazard is not properly identified, then how is a plan developed to abate it?

The end user must be able to identify the fall hazard properly, which in most cases will be quite apparent. However, there are instances when it is not apparent; it goes unnoticed; or, worse, there's an element of complacency that has been instilled over years of doing the same job the same way. In turn, the ability at that time to recognize the hazard is clouded with the fear that a fall arrest system will make the task more difficult, it will make the task take longer, or a system simply never has been used to perform this task, so it is just not needed. All three assumptions can have catastrophic consequences.

Hierarchy of Controls
Once the hazard has been identified, the ability to find a suitable and reliable solution to the hazard that is easy to use, effective, and cost appropriate seems like common sense. But unless there is a hierarchy of controls in order -- engineering out the hazard; traditional fall protection; fall restraint and fall arrest; along with job-specific characteristics -- it's quite common for a knee-jerk reaction to occur, which results in the wrong system or a substandard system being installed.

This wastes time and money. Often, a system is installed that is later replaced, or the end user doesn't utilize the system because it's not user friendly.

Fall protection is all about energy. The energy generated in a fall must be distributed in such a manner that it will not defeat the anchor or injure the worker. Workers must know the limitations of the system so they do not exceed the maximum amount of energy that can be distributed throughout the components.

Too much energy can lead to the destruction of the anchors, failure of connections, over-deployment of any energy absorber in the system, and potentially a devastating injury to the end user. There are only two ways that energy can be reduced during a fall: first by reducing the weight falling, and second by reducing the fall distance. Neither of these factors should be exceeded. Exceeding these limits creates a situation where the system performance cannot be predicted.

Proper Equipment Inspection
Fall protection equipment should be inspected before each use as well as undergo a proper yearly inspection performed by someone other than the user of the equipment. In addition, inspections should be documented in an equipment log for reference at a later date if required.

Of course, manufacturers and regulations ultimately dictate at what intervals fall arrest equipment should be inspected, but depending on the frequency of use and the environment, increased inspections may be required. The manufacturer's guidelines, standards, and regulations always should be considered minimum requirements. Fatal consequences often occur as a result of the end user's preferring to use a piece of equipment that is substandard or that should be removed from service because it is comfortable and he feels comfortable using it.

Compatibility of Connections
Many people believe they understand this topic. However, many documented failures of systems can be directly related to the connection being defeated by misuse or used in a capacity for which the connection was not designed and to which it was not tested.

New standards have increased the gate strength on carabiners and snap hooks in an effort to combat this issue. This does not mean the stronger gate is unbreakable, however. With the proper leverage and enough energy, most anything can be broken.

The only way to truly combat the problem is to educate the users of the equipment and ensure they understand the difference between a compatible and an incompatible connection. By doing this, the workers can recognize compatibility issues and take corrective action to ensure their safety.

Flexibility of the Anchor
Flexibility of the anchor is probably the most important characteristic when looking at compatible connections. If the anchor is flexible, then in many cases during a fall, the system will align itself in a proper configuration and not inappropriately load the snap hook or carabiner, even if the system geometry may not be desirable. Take the example of a large snap hook or carabiner in a small anchor point: Because the geometry will allow for the gate of the larger carabiner to be loaded against the smaller anchor, it is the flexibility of the anchor that prevents this leverage from occurring.

The most basic premise of fall protection is clearance. There is no point in designing or using a system that will allow someone to hit the ground if a fall were to occur. This can be easily observed on many of the residential construction sites on a daily basis. A worker has a vertical lifeline extended to its fullest so that readjustment is not necessary, and this adjustment will allow the worker to fall over the edge of the roof and contact the ground if he or she did fall.

For fall arrest and restraint systems an anchorage of adequate strength which is compatible with the fall arrest equipment being used is always necessary. In many cases anchors are installed in weaker materials and may not meet engineering requirements. Most end users are not engineers and do not understand that just because the anchor has been designed for a certain strength rating, it does not mean that rating can be achieved in the substrate into which it has been connected.

Harness Donning
Proper harness donning is paramount to protecting the end user. Many end users do not know how to don a harness properly; this will be devastating in the event of a fall and will create injuries that were otherwise easily avoidable. Proper harness donning and adjustment is going to protect the worker during the fall and after the fall, important because there may be a wait before a rescue can be performed.

The order in which we place these basic ideas on fall protection can be argued a number of ways, and valid arguments can be made for each of the possible configurations. Therefore the order may not be as important as agreement that these basics are a priority. It's important to remember that given time and the type of accidents present in industry, the order of importance of these basics of fall protection will change. What does not change is the fact that it's essential to the safety of those who work at height that each one of these basics is mastered by the end user.

These topics, along with various other important aspects of fall protection, need to be addressed, understood, and refined to the specific needs of the end user in order to be the most effective and reliable.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

David Lough, the general manager of Gravitec Systems, Inc., a consulting company that specializes in fall protection engineering, education, and equipment. He has been designing, consulting, and training on fall protection systems for more than 17 years and sits on the ANSI Z359 standards committee. In addition, he has aided in the development of Canadian Standards Association (CSA) documents and authored numerous articles on fall protection. Lough is heavily involved with fall protection equipment testing and is the quality manager of Gravitec's ISO 17025 accredited fall arrest equipment testing laboratory.

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