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Incorporating Rescue Into a Fall Protection Plan

Standards should be the basis for any employer's fall protection and rescue program.

A fall protection plan is commonplace for most employers, but does it include a rescue plan? Even with the best fall protection plan and equipment in place, accidents do happen. How can you protect your workers at height in the event they need a way to save themselves or rescue a co-worker?

Falls continue to be one of the most common accidents in the workplace, according to NIOSH; however, fall protection equipment is only half the answer to keeping workers safe at height. The other half involves rescuing workers to get them safely to the ground in a timely fashion to avoid additional injuries while suspended.

Many situations beyond simply falling might arise where rescue would be required while working at heights. Slipping on a platform or ladder, aerial lift malfunction, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, cramping, nausea, diabetic reactions, electrical shock, or even bee stings that can cause anaphylactic shock are just a few examples that can lead to a rescue scenario.

While many may regard rescue as difficult to implement into a fall protection program, rescue practices can be easily and seamlessly incorporated, given the advances in the technology behind descenders, ropes, and other related rescue gear. Because rescue situations tend to be infrequent, sometimes they tend not to receive the proper attention. However, because potential hazards and injuries resulting from a fall and being suspended for any length of time are serious, employers need to make rescue implementation a higher priority.

The Importance of Incorporating Rescue into Fall Protection Planning
Rescue is not just an element of a fall protection plan; it's a critical procedure that needs to be prioritized on an equal level. Why? Workers are at risk of serious injury, even death, from falls. Further, the falls don't have to be from a significant height for a worker to be injured or killed.

In the event a worker falls and is wearing a harness, he's still dangling and at risk of suspension trauma, which can set in quickly if he’s not rescued. This further builds the case for making rescue planning a priority.

When workers are injured or killed, there are a number of ramifications for employers beyond lost productivity. Insurance costs can rise and there can be legal consequences. Perhaps even more importantly, the injury or death of a fellow worker can affect the morale of others in the workplace, hampering the overall efficiency of the operation.

The Role Standards Play When Incorporating Rescue Systems
How can employers best incorporate rescue systems into their fall protection plans? When putting together a rescue plan addressing training and equipment, it's important to consider OSHA requirements and various consensus standards, including the current ANSI standards.

OSHA's general duty clause and the requirement for "prompt rescue" make it clear to employers that this procedure must be recognized and practiced. If an employer recognizes when fall protection equipment is needed, then the same must be true for rescue. With this in mind, industry experts implemented new requirements into the latest ANSI/ASSE Z359.2 and ANSI/ASSE Z359.4 standards.

Standards should be the basis for any employer's fall protection and rescue program. The developers of these consensus standards, such as the ANSI/ASSE Z359 standards, are industry experts representing government regulation agencies, users groups, unions, manufacturers, and testing laboratories. Their knowledge and experience, combined with an overall desire to create safe procedures and equipment testing standards, are what yield safe products for workers.

The ANSI/ASSE Z359.2-2007 standard requires that an employer develop a written plan and provide a means for rescue from heights. It defines requirements and training for authorized and competent rescuers. It also provides requirements for employers regarding procedures should they wish to rely on professional rescue services, such as fire departments, by calling 911. If the employer chooses this type of rescue program, it must follow certain procedures in advance. A written agreement between the employer and professional rescue service is required prior to performing any work at elevation. A job hazard analysis of the site must be completed that includes availability, preparation, and training on required equipment specific to rescue at that location. The ANSI/ASSE Z359.2 standard also gives guidance and training requirements for employers who decide to provide for their own rescue from heights.

The ANSI/ASSE Z359.4 standard created technical requirements and testing procedures for rescue descenders, ropes, harnesses, and other equipment. Check to see that your rescue equipment has the ANSI/ASSE Z359.4 certification marked on it to ensure that your rescue products meet current standards, just as you would with your fall protection equipment.

Training Workers to Use Rescue Equipment
The ANSI/ASSE Z359.2 standard requires that employees know how to inspect, anchor, assemble, and use their rescue equipment. During rescue system training, employees must become competent to safely and comfortably complete rescues from heights for all locations in which they work. Being well prepared in advance and having equipment ready to be deployed prior to leaving the ground are key. Rescuers need to be ready at all times because there’s never any warning that a worker may fall and need help.

Training must be given annually, at a minimum, and should be practiced more often. The standards require physical, hands-on demonstrations of rescue scenarios to ensure that authorized and competent rescuers have the proper skills.

Ensure that rescue equipment is chosen properly for your particular work environment. Rescue anchors are required to withstand 3,000 pounds or to be certified to five times the applied load. Anchor attachments need to be chosen with versatility in mind and must be able to be applied anywhere on a structure quickly without being compromised by sharp lattice steel or hot equipment. The worker's harness will likely already be in place, meaning body support may not need to be addressed.

For workers in an environment where harnesses aren't used, consider how to safely attach a victim to the rescue system in case of an accident. Hardware connector components should have 3,600 pounds gate strength ratings and should be compatible with rescue equipment. A means of hoisting workers off their fall protection gear or moving them horizontally on a platform also must be considered for any workplace. Rarely will an accident occur where there's a good vertical descent path, so be prepared and have the proper tools with which to move workers to a better location to get them down. There are products on the market to use for these transfers.

Employers also need to choose a descent device appropriate for their work environment. There are new descent device technologies on the market that can simplify safe rescues. Consider which features are necessary for the work site, including:

  • Portability
  • Ease of training and training retention
  • Hands-free automatic control or manual control
  • Rigging ease
  • Stop and speed control
  • Usability with different body weights
  • Ease of use for self-rescue and assisted rescue and rope construction (consider whether the rope may be exposed to high heat conditions, such as in wind nacelles, electrical environments, blowout conditions, or near machinery)
  • Ability to remove and replace ropes easily so that the same device may be used for different applications
  • Simplicity of use, which is important to consider when emergency situations arise and one’s ability to think clearly is compromised
  • Certification to the ANSI Z359.4 standards

Choose equipment that can be used for all potential scenarios, such as self-rescue, assisted rescue, or multi-person evacuation. Be sure to choose equipment that's compact and can be deployed quickly and easily within all of your work areas and in all environmental conditions without taxing the rescuer.

The size of the work crews and environment will also help determine the type of rescue equipment needed. If working in two-person crews, consider rescue procedures and equipment that one person can deploy to complete the rescue operation. Choose your equipment so that rescuers can be trained in using it and ensure that training retention is maximized.

When performing rescue training, make sure to have a separate rescue system on standby in case an incident occurs during the training. Until a person is competent with the equipment and procedures, employees face additional exposure to hazards. Start slowly with simple rescue scenarios and then build on those until workers have practiced under their most challenging accident condition. Train to real conditions of the work environment. Don't simplify rescue training to save time or to simply "check it off" the training list.

Ensure that there's a safely designed secondary backup system during the training. Consider what would happen if the trainee made a mistake. Will the backup system leave the trainee in the air hanging? If so, the clock is ticking, and the need exists to perform a real rescue on site before he sustains any suspension trauma. To simplify this condition, choose an automatically controlled backup system that can descend the trainee to the ground. Choose the backup system so that it doesn't interfere with the rescue exercises or require the trainee to manually activate the backup system. Workers need to have a real training experience with their designated rescue equipment without backup contributing unless needed. Also, make sure that there's good communication during the training from the rescue location all the way down to the ground.

Don't Shy Away From Rescue
Many employers feel intimidated by rescue procedures and shy away from them, but just like any other safety policy, rescue can be addressed reliably and efficiently when tackled head on. Rescue from heights is quickly gaining acceptance as employers realize that it's not only possible, but necessary, to be able to perform these types of rescues.

Consider all work locations at height. It may sound challenging at first, but rescue can be completed promptly and safely with the right equipment and training. A quote by Benjamin Franklin says it best: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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