When your workplace includes elevated platforms, manholes, scaffolding, roofs, or any number of other fall risks, a simple mistake can become serious in an instant. (Safety Products Group photo)

Fall Protection: Are You Fully Prepared?

Thorough fall protection requires a culture of safety as well as OSHA-certified fall prevention measures.

Companies have a constant need to improve the safety of employees and the environment they work in. Supervisors and company leaders understand how quickly accidents can happen in the workplace and how devastating their effects can be. As workplaces advance and evolve, fall protection methods must, as well. The advancements made in the fall protection industry make life easier but, more importantly, they keep employees safer.

As year-end approaches, it's a good idea to be one step ahead of the game, looking forward to 2018 and both the proven and new ways you can protect employees from workplace falls and accidents. Workplace safety is essential for an efficient, healthy company. Safety in the workplace requires an educated workforce, a confident understanding of OSHA regulations, and an interest in the latest industry updates. It’s also important that employees feel safe and confident in their workplace.

Why Is Fall Protection a Priority?
Believe it or not, falls are far more common in the workplace than you might realize. In fact, OSHA names falling as one of the most common causes of workplace fatalities. The risks are even greater when the fall is to a lower level, which has been named by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as the most deadly type of workplace fall. Fall protection and prevention is a vital part of your employees' safety.

Many employees wrongly assume that their reflexes will save them from a damaging fall or that their years of experience insulate them from the danger of falling. Falling, however, is an inescapable part of work life in many industries and can happen to anyone at any time. Even the most experienced or nimble worker can easily slip, lose their grip or balance, or simply miss a beat. When your workplace includes elevated platforms, manholes, scaffolding, roofs, or any number of other fall risks, a simple mistake can become serious in an instant.

In order to protect your labor force form the danger of injurious or fatal falls, a system of fall protection and prevention must be implemented and updated to the newest OSHA standards. For thorough protection, prevention efforts should range from company-wide trainings to the increased use of OSHA-compliant devices such as:

  • Guardrails
  • Mezzanine fall protection gates
  • Harnesses
  • Equipment guarding
  • Access control gates
  • Skylight protection

Preparing your workplace for 2018 means taking a critical look at your current fall protection system and making improvements where necessary.

Step By Step: How Your Company Can Prevent Falls
Fall protection is likely already a high priority. But with changing regulations and the constant risk of injury, there is no place for complacency when it comes to the measures your company has taken to protect its workforce. Thorough fall protection requires a culture of safety as well as OSHA-certified fall prevention measures. It includes a multi-faceted program implemented company-wide, ideally comprised of these essential steps:

1. Learn. Familiarize yourself with fall protection rules from OSHA and make sure you know any additional rules your company has in place.

2. Monitor. Thoroughly investigate workplace fall hazards on a regular basis.

3. Change. Eliminate these hazards whenever possible.

4. Educate. Teach your workforce about the remaining fall hazards and proper workplace safety protocol.

5. Prevent. Install and maintain fall prevention and protection devices.

An intimate knowledge of the workplace and the regulations that apply to it is crucial. Floor holes, elevated platforms, open-sided platforms and floors, as well as drops to lower levels must be monitored carefully. Another important consideration is that fall protection can differ based on the location and the type of workplace, so what works in one location may not in another.

Floor holes and skylights require toe-boards and railings, floor hole covers, or skylight protection guards. Elevated platforms and potentially dangerous equipment (including conveyer belts, vats, and heavy machinery) are often better suited to guardrails and other equipment guarding. In work sites where the potential danger of falling is extreme, you'll need to implement even further safety measures, such as safety harnesses and lines, safety nets, mezzanine fall protection gates, and access control gates.

A truly prepared workplace understands that falls are not hypothetical. In other words, instead of asking yourself what you would do if a worker falls, make sure you know how they will be protected when they fall.

Determining the Areas of Your Building That Need Protection
Different parts of your building have different requirements—and it's important that appropriate safety measures have been implemented everywhere necessary. Varying levels, open manholes, pits, vats, roofs, and heavy equipment all call for their own protection.

A standard rule of thumb can be found in the "trigger height." For workers who are working above ground level or above a lower level, there is a widely recognized trigger height of 4 feet. Once you have workers 4 feet removed from the ground or lower level, you are required to protect them from falls. The trigger height, however, is not the last word on the subject.

Rooftop work sites are especially in need of up-to-date fall protection and prevention. Not only does the average rooftop work site present more risk of falling than other work sites, but there is also a higher propensity for environmental risks. Slipping hazards caused by inclement weather, such as snow, wind, and rain, are often joined by debris from the work site as well as the surrounding environment. As such, rooftop work sites must be outfitted with OSHA-compliant safety measures, often mixing active safety measures such as harnesses and lines with passive safety measures such as guardrails and safety gates.

OSHA Regulations and Your Company
Because falling is such a common cause of injury and fatality in the workplace, it's essential to stay informed of OSHA’s regulations surrounding fall prevention and protection. Your workforce has the right to a safe, healthy workplace, and your responsibilities include:

  • Providing accessible and thorough training on job hazards
  • Maintaining a workplace that is free of known dangers
  • Providing fall protection and prevention equipment at no cost to workers
  • Keeping workplace floors clean and, if possible, dry
  • Allowing for open communication and reporting of health and safety concerns

Keep in mind—OSHA issued a final rule to update general industry walking-working surfaces and fall protection standards in 2017. According to its website, the updates include the following two protection factors that must be completed by November 2018:

  • Install personal fall arrest or ladder safety systems on new fixed ladders over 24 feet and on replacement ladders/ladder sections, including fixed ladders on outdoor advertising structures (by Nov. 19, 2018).
  • Ensure existing fixed ladders over 24 feet, including those on outdoor advertising structures, are equipped with a cage, well, personal fall arrest system, or ladder safety system (by Nov. 19, 2018).

Educating Your Labor Force
A workplace fall can happen to anyone, and when someone does fall, it affects everyone. As such, every member of your team must be an informed, active participant in increasing the safety of your organization. You can educate your team using:

  • OSHA training programs
  • Up-to-date safety handbooks
  • Robust safety orientation for new hires

But perhaps the most important part of education is culture. By fostering a culture of safety in your company, you'll inspire your employees to commit to their own safety as well as that of others. This means a worker should feel comfortable reminding their manager or CEO of slip and fall hazards, or insisting that they make use of fall protection devices. Safety in the workplace is not about hierarchy, it's about community.

For employers, the social structure of safety is equally as important as the physical structure. Fall safety prevention devices such as guardrails, safety gates, and harnesses aren't the only necessities; safety training is just as essential. This includes training on the safe use of and navigation around dangerous equipment and hazardous heights, as well as fall protection and prevention.

Employees, for their part, must participate in these trainings, actively recognize unsafe practices as soon as they witness them, and feel comfortable reporting their concerns. They should also know which areas of their workplace present fall risks and be vigilant about limiting their exposure to this risk.

Keeping Your Staff Safe in the Year Ahead
A company is only as good as its employees, and employees can only be as safe as their work environment allows them to be. Therefore, it's essential that you remain committed to and invested in fall prevention. By prioritizing fall and accident prevention education, creating a culture of safety, analyzing fall prevention methods already in place, and updating them to reflect new guidelines and innovations, you can keep your workplace as safe as possible. 2018 is the year to take your company's safety culture to the next level. With the proper safeguards at your disposal, you can make sure everyone is safe under your watch.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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