Specialty harnesses can now be custom ordered for specific industries and applications, making them more practical than ever before—as each one is built with the specific applications in mind. (3M Fall Protection photo)

How Fall Protection Has Changed Dramatically Over the Decades

Given all we know and the resources available to us, "rescue" today should be viewed as an expected event with a positive outcome.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, worker deaths in America are down from about 38 worker deaths per day in 1970 to 13 per day in 2014. However, the leading cause of death in the construction industry remains the same year in and year out: falls from height. In fact, nearly 40 percent of all worker deaths in 2014 were from falls. Although this current statistic is still startling, it is a 66 percent decrease from the numbers recorded more than 40 years ago.

So what has led to this marked improvement? Safety experts say better equipment, advancement in technology, and an overall shift in the safety culture are all key factors in reducing the number of worker deaths caused by falls.

Below is a deep dive into how the impact of technology, such as the development of self-rescue devices, as well as overall shifts in the safety culture on construction sites, both of which are leading to a more widespread adoption of and adherence to safety practices.

A Shift in the Safety Culture
One great example of the shift in safety culture comes from the world of fall protection and safety. Once upon a time, companies didn't always consider rescue a routine part of doing business. If a worker was at height and fell, the next step was often recovery rather than rescue.

Today, due to new technology and advancements in fall protection equipment to help keep workers at height safe and catch them when they fall, rescue is now an expected event that must be considered part of a safety plan.

As a result, many companies are better prepared for fall-related rescues and workers themselves better understand the purpose of safety equipment, such as self-rescue devices—and are more willing to wear them.

There is also more safety gear available in general, and it looks more appealing and comfortable than ever before. Workers today can pick from a wide variety of fashionable safety shoes, glasses, hard hats, and reflective clothing.

Modern work clothing and gear is also more practical as safety elements are being built into workers’ everyday attire and tool sets. Specialty harnesses can now be custom ordered for specific industries and applications, making them more practical than ever for tower workers, underground miners, ironworkers, wind energy workers, scaffolding workers, etc.—as each one is built with the specific applications associated with these jobs in mind. For example, telecommunications harnesses have built-in seats. Underground mining harnesses have a built-in component that holds a battery pack for headlights. Construction workers have harnesses with built-in tool belts, and ironworkers have harnesses that reduce the weight on their shoulders.

In fact, many workers find their harnesses today so useful that they wear them on the job even when they don't need them for fall protection.

These advancements in equipment and gear are a big reason behind the shift in attitudes among workers and the reduction in the number of worker deaths caused by falls. So is better education, both regarding safety practices as well as a more educated workforce in general.

Another factor behind this cultural shift is the fact that insurance companies are urging their clients to consider safety issues more seriously.

Today's Safety Culture: Guided by Technology and Innovation
Fall protection equipment is so effective today that an entirely new category of equipment was recently created for rescues: self-rescue devices.

Let's keep in mind that, 40 years ago, fall rescue didn't really exist. If a worker fell, he or she fell to the ground or was left hanging until finally (hopefully) rescued. But today, if a worker falls, the fall protection gear either prevents the worker from reaching the fall hazard altogether or arrests the fall, leaving the worker suspended at height, in which case the worker needs to be returned safely to his or her starting position. Modern self-retracting lifelines can be set up by the user to automatically lower a worker after a fall has been arrested.

However, if a fall from height occurs, rescues are now divided into three categories: self-rescue, assisted self-rescue, and mechanically aided rescue (only used when a fallen worker is unconscious or otherwise unable to participate in his or her recovery).

It’s important to note here that although the phrase "fall rescue" may still evoke feelings of terror and/or images of a dramatic or tricky scenario, recent developments in technology are intended to erase these negative associations as soon as more companies know about them. In fact, thanks to developments in rescue devices, rescues can and should be executable with minimal training.

Rescue poles allow rescuers to reach down with an extension pole and attach a rescue system to a fallen co-worker, which allows the rescuer to lift up or lower the worker to perform a rescue, and new self-rescue systems allow wearers to lower themselves to the ground after falling, thereby eliminating the need, in many cases, for a formal in-house or third-party rescue team.

All of these new developments in rescue gear are the result of both advancements in technology and a culture that is more willing to embrace and use safety equipment.

What Still Needs to Change
Although we have come a long way in the past four decades, there is still a lot that needs to be done to keep workers safe at height. First and foremost, "rescue" can no longer be a dreaded and dirty word among safety professionals.

Yes, historically speaking, a "rescue" often referred to a harrowing experience and ghastly recovery that may have been associated with terrible news. But thanks to advancements in gear, technology, and preparedness, today the word "rescue" should be associated with gratitude, relief, and good news because it should imply that a worker was successfully arrested from a fall and then safety returned to the ground or to his or her starting position. Given all we know and the resources available to us, “rescue” today should be viewed as an expected event with a positive outcome.

Another thing that still needs to change is that companies need to stop viewing 911 as their rescue service. The law requires companies to provide "prompt" rescues, and the fire department cannot always meet this requirement—nor is it their responsibility to do so.

While most companies know these laws well, as a refresher, OSHA regulations dictate the following:

  • OSHA 1926.502 (d) (20) for the construction industry: 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.
  • OSHA 1910.66 subpart F section 1 (e)(8) for general industry: The employer shall provide for prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall or shall assure the self-rescue capability of employees.

Fall Safety Professionals: The Future is Bright
Although accidents still happen, fall safety professionals and experts are increasingly hopeful and optimistic about the future of fall protection.

We've come a long way since the old days, when tough guys with a false sense of invincibility dictated a macho, laissez faire attitude toward height safety. And we're almost on the other side of the “learning phase,” during which personal fall protection equipment was viewed as a cumbersome and irritating job requirement.

Not only is safety now a routine part of everyday life now for most workers, but the safety equipment available today is also more effective and easier to use than ever before—and training is less expensive.

While a technical rescue training course takes about 120 hours of training, a non-technical rescue course for an authorized rescue team requires only 10 to 12 hours of training. It's important to note here that formal training is still required for an employee to become an authorized rescuer (Z359.2 (3.2.7)) and/or a competent rescuer (Z359.2 (3.2.6)). But some modern rescue equipment is simple enough to be used by a worker without specialized rescue training, which means companies don’t need devoted rescue personnel to meet current fall safety requirements.

With all of the cost-effective and technologically advanced solutions on the market today, there simply is no excuse for a competent person in charge of an at-height program to not prepare employees and/or provide them with the proper fall protection equipment and training. And that means the future for workers at height looks more and more secure as we continue to improve safety and reduce the number of worker deaths caused by falls.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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