Working at Height: Fall Protection Safety Starts with the Correct Equipment
Tempting as it may seem in the “real world,” fall protection choices should never be influenced by convenience alone.
- By Tom Dillon
- Jul 01, 2016
Falls are the leading cause of death and injury in construction. Of the 828 workplace deaths in private construction during 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 36 percent were caused by falls from height.1 Equally troubling is that fall protection is again the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) most frequently cited standard in work site inspections.2
Reducing the hazards of working at height starts with a thorough understanding of the risks and the informed deployment of personal fall protection equipment—in combination with formal personalized, hands-on training and best-in-class culture of safety practices. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is defined as "anything worn or carried that protects the user from hazards which could lead to personal injury." Personal Fall Protection Equipment (PFPE) protects against the mortal risk of a fall while working at height. Items that are not worn or carried (such as anchor points) are not considered PFPE but do form a part of a fall protection safety system.
Three additional critical factors complete that system. They include training —essential in all aspects of the use of the equipment, as well as the working environment and application; compliance of the equipment with applicable safety standards; and regular formal inspections as to the continued integrity of the equipment.
Assessing the Risk
There are three types of PFPE and methods of use. Each type of equipment addresses a different work situation and risk level.
The first, which is the most restrictive, is travel restraint PFPE. Travel restraint PFPE restricts access to locations from where a fall can occur. It is designed to completely prevent a fall. This may involve connecting the worker so that he or she cannot physically reach the edge and thus has zero potential to fall. Because falls are entirely prevented, with the use of a travel restraint PFPE solution there is no need for a shock or energy absorber. Anchor point minimum strengths are 1,000 pounds OSHA Competent Person (CP) or 2×MAF by a Qualified Person (QP). The applicable standard is Z359.3.
Positioning PFPE enables the total or partial suspension of a worker by means of PFPE. Positioning PFPE is often used to safeguard workers climbing ladders, in the form of a cable or rail system, or to restrain and position individuals working in place hands-free. Positioning PFPE is designed to stop a fall in under 24 inches, the maximum allowable free fall (for restraint only) by OSHA. This quick-stopping action limits both the distance and the amount of force. Anchor point minimum strengths are 3,000 pounds OSHA Competent Person (CP) or 2×MAF by a Qualified Person (QP). The standard to reference is Z359.3.
Personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) are not designed to prevent a significant fall from happening. PFAS include the use of a full body harness and some type of connecting device, such as shock or energy absorbing lanyards, personal fall limiters, or self-retracting lifelines. The maximum free-fall distance is 6 feet for SA lanyards, and an energy absorber is essential. The anchor point minimum strengths are 5,000 pounds OSHA Competent Person (CP) or 2×MAF by a Qualified Person (QP). The applicable standards are ANSI Z359 and A10.32.
Regardless of the type or method of equipment used, personal fall protection systems should be designed by a qualified and experienced person and should include an analysis of the supporting structure.
Deploying the Solution
The application of personal fall protective equipment to protecting workers at height begins with the ABCs of fall protection: anchorage points and anchorage connectors, body wear, and connecting devices.
Anchorage connectors secure the connecting device of an individual's PFPE to the work site’s anchor or tie-off point (such as an I-beam). Should a worker fall, both anchorage points must support the weight and drop force of that individual. Anchors must be of suitable strength and designed to support loads in all applied directions. The selection of anchor connectors will differ (in shape, configuration, material), depending on the availability of anchorage points and choice of fall arrest systems.
Fixed point anchors (FPAs) consist of certified anchor points to an existing overhead structure at which a shock-absorbing lanyard or self-retracting lifeline (SRL) is connected. Workers work centrally within an approximately 15-degree range when connected to an FPA. As their work progresses, they transition to adjacent FPAs to maintain 100 percent connectivity.
Mobile anchorage points include horizontal lifelines (HLLs) and conventional beam and trolley monorail systems. Attached to an overhead structure, mobile anchorage points offer uninterrupted protection for an individual or multiple workers at height. Systems are located centrally over work areas.
Anchorage point selection is critical. Tempting as it may seem in the "real world," fall protection choices should never be influenced by convenience alone. A fall resulting from the failure of a “quick tie-off” to do a 15-second task can easily result in an injury as serious as a fall that occurred during a day-long job.
Non-certified anchorage points for fall arrest must support at least 5,000lbf [29CFR 1926.502(d)(15)] and for positioning at least 3,000lbf [29CFR 1926.502(e)(2)]. Certified anchorage points must have a safety factor of 2. Manufactured anchor devices should comply with ANSI Z359. All installed anchor devices must be regularly inspected by a competent person. Any anchor device involved in a fall must be taken out of service.
A full-body harness is an essential component of fall arrest, positioning, rope access, rescue, and evacuation. A full-body harness, defined as including hardware and webbing, must comply with all appropriate standards. It must be correctly fitted to, and used by, a trained worker. While there are a wide variety of harnesses to choose from, the selection should always be based on the specific needs of individual workers, the task being performed, and the environment in which they will be working.
Hardware must be sturdy and easy to attach to connecting devices. Construction quality is an important key. Avoid incompatible or off-sized hardware, unintentional disconnection from components, sharp edges, exposed springs, and similar hazards.
Harness webbing should meet the ANSI standard of a minimum 5,000 pounds (22 kN) tensile strength. It should be sturdy with tightly woven yarn that slides through the hardware without snagging and should be appropriate to the application and environment (i.e., able to withstand work site weather, chemicals, heat, etc.). Any harness with webbing that is cut, burned, frayed, or otherwise damaged should be immediately removed from service.
Like webbing, harness padding should be both sturdy and applicable to the application—as well as pliable, easy to adjust, breathable, and comfortable. Chest, back D-ring, and leg straps should be properly sized and positioned correctly. The fit should be snug. Adjustments should be easy to make.
The comfortable and proper fit of a body harness is crucial to worker compliance and protection. As with any PPE, workers are more likely to wear a full-body harness that is both comfortable and easy to use.
Connecting devices comprise the critical link between a full-body harness and an anchorage connector and its anchorage point. As with each PFAS component, the choice of connecting and deceleration devices will be determined by the method of fall protection, worker needs, and the task to be performed.
There are two types of lanyard, the flexible line connecting a full-body harness to an anchorage point: non-shock-absorbing and shock-absorbing (SA). For use with travel restraint PFPE, where the worker is physically restrained from the possibility of a fall, the choice of connecting device will likely be a straight non-shock-absorbing lanyard. Connecting devices used with positioning PFPE could also be non-shock-absorbing but will vary in design according to use (climbing or positioning). Connectors used in positioning applications should include a second backup connection for fall protection if over 4 feet in industry or 6 feet in construction.
For fall arrest if using a SA lanyard, the connection must incorporate a deceleration device—a shock or energy absorber. PFAS energy absorbers reduce peak force on a fallen user to a safe level, as much as 65-80 percent below the threshold of injury as specified by OSHA and recommended by ANSI. The deployed length of a system increases by both distance travelled and body weight. All connection systems, per OSHA, must have double-action, self-closing, self-locking snap hooks to reduce the possibility of roll-out.
Considerations when selecting a connecting device should include the type of work under way, site conditions, potential fall distance, compatibility with other components, and product quality. Designs vary considerably, but connection and deceleration devices should comply with the appropriate standard(s). The majority of connectors in use today conform to ANSI Z359.12:2009. The majority of energy absorbers conform to ANSI Z359.13:2009.
Unfortunately, as reported each year by OHSA and BLS statistics, working at height is inherently dangerous and a mortal risk. The choices involved in fall protection safety may literally be life or death. Work at height must be conducted only by persons following best practices in safety, using the appropriate personal fall protection equipment, and having received formal training for the task—and the risk.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.