A Fall Protection Guide to Working at Heights
Waiting until the victim has fallen and is waiting to be retrieved is the wrong time to be making decisions about how to safely get the worker down.
Imagine this: It's another typical day on the job site. A worker proceeds to climb high into position, where he begins his assigned tasks. He is comfortable and moving freely as he works. Suddenly, he loses his balance and falls from his post.
Thankfully, his employer believed in training and in utilizing appropriate fall protection equipment for those working at heights. It's simple, really: The proper care and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) can turn a would-be tragedy into a minor inconvenience. However, as you will learn, there is much more to take into consideration.
This worker had taken the time to prep for his job, which included inspecting his fall arrest equipment and scoping out a solid anchorage point that could safely be reached while maintaining 100 percent connection. As this scenario continued to play out, when the worker fell, he entered the first stage known as the "free fall," transitioning into a safe deceleration as his energy absorber activated to bring him to a (relatively) comfortable stop.
This man was lucky to be alive! However, it is important to note that, although he had followed proper protocol during his morning prep ... he missed one important detail: He had not planned for his own potential rescue.
After calming himself, the worker assessed his situation and quickly realized he was hanging 20 feet below the work surface upon which he originally stood. He had been performing a maintenance task in a remote section of the building, but no one was aware that he was working there. So after the fall, he had to shout to gain someone's attention. After several frantic minutes, someone finally responded, calling 911; help was on the way.
As the stranded worker waited for rescue, he dangled for 10 minutes from his fall arrest lanyard. The fall itself was not only unnerving but, as he dangled mid-air, it was becoming increasingly painful—the straps began to cause discomfort as they dug into his legs. He was feeling tired and was becoming progressively listless.
So the question should be posed: Is the worker in any further danger as he continues to wait for rescue? The answer is yes. In fact, there is a real danger as he continues to hang in a vertical position. As the worker dangled after his fall, he was not able to put any pressure on his legs, which normally helps to pump blood back to the heart due to the intertwining of blood vessels with muscles. As he hangs in suspension, the muscles slacken and the decreased pressure on the veins can cause a condition known as "venous pooling." As less and less blood gets back to the heart, less blood will be making its way to the brain, where it is vitally needed to carry oxygen necessary for normal functioning. Within 10 to 45 minutes of the onset of venous pooling, your heart begins to slow, causing fainting in most instances. As the worker passes out and his head slumps forward, the situation becomes dire. This condition, known as "suspension trauma," requires rescue as fast as possible.
Planning for Safe Rescue
When a fall occurs, most companies' plan of action is to simply call 911 for rescue. And although this may be an acceptable course of action, it could be too late to save an employee's life. Rescue is something that, sadly, never seems to get the attention it deserves until it is time to actually carry one out. Companies need to understand their job site hazards, have a firm understanding of the equipment, and have proper rescue procedures in place in order to act expeditiously to save a worker’s life.
Waiting until the victim has fallen and is waiting to be retrieved is the wrong time to be making decisions about how to safely get the worker down, while at the same time protecting those who are performing the rescue job. A personal fall arrest system does no good to save a worker's life if he cannot be reached for proper rescue after his fall.
In fact, there are some real dangers for the victim if rescuers cannot get to them in time or, has been the case in some fatal incidents, where they didn't even know that the worker had fallen in the first place. Often, the unplanned rescue will be quite simple and go off without a hitch, however, sometimes rescuers become the victims themselves while working in haste to try to retrieve a fellow employee quickly, neglecting their own safety and instead becoming in need of rescuing themselves. For a company to provide a proper rescue plan, one must first look at the rescue considerations provided by OSHA's standards.
To bring light to the importance of having a rescue plan in place before the worker ever climbs, there are legal requirements that must be better understood. OSHA requirements state: "the employer shall provide for prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall or shall assure that employees are able to rescue themselves." (1926.502(d) (20)). OSHA will take notice and will be more likely to cite if a fall victim suffers further complications as a result of hanging for a period of time, such as blood clotting, fainting, and everything in between, up to death. One should know all steps to cover in all fall scenarios before ever starting work to avoid the problem of not being able to quickly get a person down and the possible injuries as a direct result.
The proper steps to take for a fall rescue scenario are covered in Job Planning. Prior to ever starting a job, many companies will have workers fill out a "pre-task plan for safety." On a job site, there are three types of conditions that may be encountered by those doing the work during the period of time covered by the pre-task plan. These conditions are:
- Normal conditions: Expected work conditions are considered to be acceptable. Workers should have a "game plan" for how they expect the work to play out.
- Alert conditions: These are conditions where something has not gone according to plan but steps can be taken to avoid an incident or fall from occurring.
- Emergency conditions: When an incident (such as a fall) occurs, a worker becomes immobile/incapacitated at heights, requiring quick retrieval for further care.
The worker(s) analyze the situation to visualize what a possible rescue from the work location would look like. A determination of the type of remediation/rescue that will need to take place can be planned. The four rescue types are:
- Self-rescue: A person who has been directly exposed to an emergency condition (post-fall arrest) is able to move unassisted to a safe place. This is the preferred method above all else if it is possible. Safety equipment that the worker /victim could use in this situation would be a small SRL, as well as a fixed vertical lifeline system on a permanent ladder.
- Assisted self-rescue: This is a situation that does not permit self-rescue but where, with minimal help, the individual can be brought to a safe location; it is the second preferred method of rescue. The safety equipment that the worker/victim would use in this situation would be a rescue ladder and rescue winch. This is the preferred method of rescue for this situation.
- Mechanically aided rescue: It involves the use of an aerial lift to reach a victim who has fallen or who is in need of medical assistance and is unable to climb down from a work area. Safety equipment used in this situation would be an aerial lift or extension ladder.
- Pick-off rescue: The rescuer must go to the victim in order to "pick him off" the structure from which he hangs. This involves active intervention of a rescuer and/or rescuer team to help a potentially incapacitated or unconscious worker who is unable to help or communicate. This is the least desirable method in the hierarchy of rescue techniques but, if it is going to be needed, the time to figure it out is ahead of time so that a plan can be developed and practice can take place.
The program is best described in the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)/ASSE Z359.2, which describes the "Minimum Requirements for a Comprehensive Managed Fall Protection Program" and lays out responsibilities for the employer, including ensuring the presence and training of "competent" and "authorized" rescuers, as well as calling for rescue procedures to be in place for the possible scenarios that may arise.
- Competent Rescuers: They possess workplace knowledge through experience and training of rescue regulations and equipment, being the leader of the rescue team.
- Authorized Rescuers: These are the ones who perform the rescue.
Based upon a series of protocols known as the 5 Rules of Rescue. These rules are:
Rescue Rule 1: Team Safety—Rescuers should never rush in, even when well trained. Keep it simple when rescuing: First protect yourself, second protect your team, third protect your victim.
Rescue Rule 2: Incident Command Structure (ICS)—Led by the Competent Rescuer, who would be calling the shots on each stage of the rescue, there are several main elements to this structure: First Responders, Incident Command, Rescue team, and Safety Officer.
Rescue Rule 3: Stick to Structure—Rescuers can focus on the established rescue plan and the task at hand rather than scrambling at the last moment, likely forgetting about key elements such as necessary tools or taking shortcuts on safety.
Rescue Rule 4: Keep it Simple—When simple and practical procedures are used, there is a much larger margin of safety; requirements for training are reduced; training retention rates increase.
Rescue Rule 5: Victim Safety—After rescue, a medical staff should take care of the victim for an extended period of time to make sure no further issues arise.
Knowing the proper procedure for a fall rescue situation can mean the difference between life and death. With falls from heights ranking as the most common cause of serious work-related injuries and deaths, following proper procedures and guidelines can provide a much safer work environment.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.