Combine hands-on and classroom instruction to discuss issues such as regulations, assigning responsibilities, identifying, eliminating and controlling hazards, implementing the tenets of the written plan on the job, and how to select, use, inspect, store and maintain fall protection equipment. (Capital Safety photo)

Laying the Groundwork

Here's how to create and execute a reliable fall protection and rescue plan.

Fall protection is one safety area where achieving 100 percent compliance is an ongoing challenge. Most companies have employees who follow safety regulations to the letter, but there are still some who bypass the rules or disregard the fact that their employees are endangered by ineffective training, the leading cause of injury even when proper PPE is available. Unlike simple safety precautions, such as donning a hard hat, safety glasses or gloves, fall protection is more specialized, requiring training to learn how and when to use equipment.

Although there is not one all-encompassing policy that applies to the entire range of industries requiring fall protection equipment and training, there are common characteristics exhibited by companies with extremely high compliance rates and exceptional safety records. They not only provide their workforces with reliable, job-specific equipment, but they also develop and maintain a comprehensive fall protection and rescue plan.

To continually protect all employees engaged in work activities that expose them to height safety risks, it's crucial to establish structured guidelines within a written fall protection and rescue plan—as opposed to just talking about them. As a safety manager, it's your responsibility to analyze and prepare for any fall hazards your workers may encounter before the actual work begins. By developing a plan in advance, you can evaluate how to best prevent a fall, train workers on the ground to ensure they are fully prepared in the event of a fall, and determine appropriate fall protection equipment.

When you create a new plan for work at heights, or modify an existing one, there are several core elements you need to include. Specifically, a formal plan should identify fall hazards on a job site, how they can be eliminated or minimized, and how to respond to a suspended worker after a fall to reduce the risk of serious injury. As you build and customize your own site-specific plan, use these five components as a framework.

1. Fall Hazards in the Work Area
One of the first steps in developing a fall protection and rescue plan is to perform a comprehensive fall hazard survey. This involves identifying all potential fall hazards and their characteristics, which include:

  • Exact location and dimensions
  • Type of hazard
  • Frequency and duration of exposure to the hazard
  • Height of the potential fall
  • Sketch of the hazard configuration
  • Fall protection and rescue equipment needed
  • Environmental conditions
  • Method to be used to control the hazard
  • Clearance available (the most important and the most overlooked aspect)

Remember, each fall hazard on a job site must be analyzed individually and thoroughly documented. Although standard hazards present in many job environments are similar in nature, be sure to do an individual site assessment prior to each new project to evaluate any new or unique hazards that may be present. Additionally, consider reevaluating the control method for any "standard" fall hazards you identified in the analysis. Are there better ways of controlling the hazard since the assessment was conducted? Are there newer, safer products that should be used instead?

2. Method of Fall Arrest or Fall Restraint
Next, a properly developed plan should indicate how the identified fall hazards can be eliminated or minimized. This entails listing appropriate equipment, including specific product details and manufacturer information, and detailing compatible connections to enhance worker safety.

Active fall protection gear, such as a harness or a self-retracting lifeline (SRL), can mitigate the risk of serious injury if workers learn how to properly wear and use the equipment and how to conduct regular inspection and maintenance of the equipment. A passive fall protection system, such as guardrails, permanent netting, or barriers, can help to eliminate injuries by preventing workers from coming into contact with the fall hazard.

Choose durable, user-friendly equipment outfitted with advanced features that help workers remain safe at all times and allow for timely rescue in the event of a fall. Modern equipment is becoming more comfortable, more intuitive, and more affordable than ever. Educate yourself on how these advances can improve the way your company operates and consider reassessing your equipment inventory before new work begins. Don't just rely on information from the Internet, but explore hands-on demonstration opportunities from fall protection experts or manufacturers.

3. Equipment Assembly, Inspection & Storage, and Overhead Protection
Refer to and specify the manufacturer's recommended procedures for proper assembly, maintenance, inspection, and disassembly of all equipment you plan to deploy on the job. Additionally, include copies of manufacturer data for each specific type of equipment used.

A visual inspection of all safety equipment should be completed daily, or before each use, to check for any defective equipment. Be sure to designate who will be responsible for each task—whether it's inspecting the equipment or tagging and removing faulty equipment. Then, indicate specific methods for handling, storing, and securing all equipment. For example, note if toe boards are installed on scaffolding to prevent tools and other materials from falling.

Finally, remember that hard hats are required on all job sites where workers are exposed to overhead hazards. If this applies to your project, identify what types of warning signs workers will encounter on site, what they are cautioning against, and where they will be present. If a hazard warrants additional protection, such as a debris net, detail the extra safety precautions.

4. Training & Instruction Program
Consistently train employees on the procedures and best practices within the fall protection plan to help prepare them to work safely at heights. Specifically, combine hands-on and classroom instruction to discuss issues such as regulations, assigning responsibilities, identifying, eliminating and controlling hazards, implementing the tenets of the written plan on the job, and how to select, use, inspect, store and maintain fall protection equipment.

Before your employees begin work, give them time to review the written fall protection plan. Then, collectively discuss any area of confusion, answer questions or concerns, and remedy any information gap. Additionally, provide them with detailed, easily accessible instructions for all fall protection devices that will be used and, once work begins, schedule weekly safety meetings to reexamine equipment and discuss any unforeseen hazards. Your ultimate goal is to ensure that, prior to permitting employees to work in areas where fall hazards exist, your entire crew is properly trained and fully informed.

Keep in mind that OSHA requires retraining of employees if new systems are introduced, workplace changes occur, or if the employee displays inadequate knowledge. Also, ANSI Z359.2 requires that an employer implement safe fall protection and rescue procedures and provide annual hands-on training of all employees exposed to fall hazards.

5. Rescue Plan
The rescue plan, a crucial but often neglected extension of a well-developed fall protection plan, offers organized strategy and procedures to safely retrieve a person who has fallen from an elevated work surface and is suspended in a full body harness. It includes both self-rescue and mechanically aided rescue instructions. If you equip workers with personal fall arrest systems, you must ensure employees can be promptly rescued or can rescue themselves should a fall occur.

Rescue plans are rarely comprehensive, if they exist at all, because many contractors believe emergency services will easily be able to retrieve a suspended worker or that the worker will be able to pull himself or herself to safety. As you develop a rescue plan specific to your job site, address the following questions:

  • Who will perform the rescue?
  • What equipment will he/she use?
  • Where is the equipment located?
  • What is the incident reporting procedure?
  • Who will ensure the equipment involved is taken out of service and properly replaced?

Within this section, designate who should perform first aid procedures in an emergency situation, such as a foreman or other certified individual, and detail emergency services information, including phone, first aid, and crane or elevator locations.

A fall protection and rescue plan is evidence that your company is doing everything it can do to prevent injuries and facilitate compliance, which is something both employees and regulatory bodies will notice—and appreciate. It reminds your workers that you are genuinely concerned about their safety and well-being.

Be adamant about updating and regularly rehearsing your plan so workers can respond in a timely manner in the event of a fall. Planning ahead allows you and your employees to proactively prevent falls and to conduct a successful rescue, should a fall occur. You should do all that you can to maximize the safety of your workers by drafting a robust, easily accessible fall protection and rescue plan as soon as possible.

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

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