Defying Gravity Reduces Fall Incidents

Gravity sees all of us as equals, and it’s the force responsible for one of the most common types of workplace injuries: falls.

Gravity is no respecter of persons. Rich or poor, young or old, tall or short; gravity is an equalizing law that everyone is subject to. One misstep can be enough for gravity to win. Gravity is also the force that’s ultimately responsible for one of the most common types of workplace injuries: falls.

Blaming gravity as a root cause for falls at your facility won’t mitigate future incidents. Recognizing fall hazards and providing fall protection equipment, devices and systems prevents gravity from claiming another win.

Identifying some fall hazards may be easy. For example, ladders and stairways are highly recognizable. Elevated work platforms and holes may be more easily overlooked. Finding each potential fall hazards is a key step in eliminating future incidents.

After hazards have been identified, several different options may be available to prevent employees from falling to a lower level. The good news is that OSHA specifies more than one method for guarding fall hazards. Employers may choose the best method or methods to meet the needs of their facility.

Covers guard openings or holes in walls or walking-working surfaces. An opening is any space that is at least 30 inches high and 18 inches wide [29 CFR 1910.21(b)]. An opening of this size is large enough to allow a person to fall to a lower level. Holes are gaps or open spaces on a walking-working surface that are least 2 inches wide.

A cover may be temporarily used over holes or openings during repairs; or it may be permanent for openings that are inherent to an operation or design. Examples of permanent covers are skylight guards and hatch doors that cover the openings to vats or other processing equipment. Covers may also be used to guard openings in walls that are four or more feet from a lower level.

When covers are used, they must be secured to prevent them from shifting out of place. They must also be capable of supporting the maximum load that could cross over the cover.

Dockboards include items such as bridge plates, dock plates and dock levelers. They are used to bridge the gap between a loading dock platform and a delivery vehicle.

When dockboards are used, employees must take measures to ensure that they will not shift when people, carts or equipment cross over them. Wheel chocks and locking mechanisms are common ways to keep vehicles and dockboards in place.

Toe Boards
Toe boards surround exposed edges to help prevent objects such as tools from falling to a lower level. They also help prevent people from stepping over the edge of ramps, elevated work platforms and holes.

To be effective, toe boards need to be tall enough to adequately stop an item from falling or stop a person’s foot. They also need to be securely attached to the walking surface and be able to withstand at least 50 pounds of force.

Handrails are an example of railings that are required to provide support and stability for anyone using staircases and ramps. In addition to OSHA regulations governing their placement, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also has requirements for their placement and use in commercial buildings.

Guardrail systems can be used to protect exposed edges and openings. They are sometimes used around covers to further mitigate fall risks from openings or holes in walking-working surfaces.

Safety Nets
Most often seen at construction sites, safety nets are installed under elevated work platforms to help prevent falling objects from injuring someone on a lower level. In very limited cases where personal fall protection systems cannot be used, they may also be used for fall arrest.

Safety nets may be utilized in production areas to protect employees who work on lower levels. Employees working in storage areas can use safety nets to help stabilize loads and prevent them from falling or shifting.

Warning Lines and Designated Areas
Depending upon the work being done on an elevated working surface, it may be cumbersome for employees to wear personal fall protection systems – especially if the surface is large and their work never takes them near an unprotected edge. When this is the case, OSHA allows employers to use different methods to keep these workers safe.

Designated areas are portions of an elevated walking-working surface marked with warning lines around their perimeter. Employees in a designated area may work without additional fall protection. The warning line that surrounds a designated area as a barrier must provide an adequate warning of unprotected sides or edges that are beyond the designated area.

Employers may also limit access to areas with fall hazards only to authorized employees. An authorized employee is one who has been trained to work in an area with fall hazards and has been taught about the specific fall hazards present.

Personal Fall Arrest Systems
Sometimes, guardrails, covers and warning lines aren’t practical, or they don’t provide adequate protection for the work being performed. Personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) are personal protective equipment: a last line of defense against a known hazard.

As the name suggests, these systems have more than one component. They consist of at least three devices: an anchorage point, a connector and a body harness. All three must be in place and in good condition to provide adequate protection.

Anchorage points are secure areas where lanyards, ropes and other connecting devices may be attached. These points must be structurally sound and be capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per person anchored.

Connectors include lanyards, lifelines and positioning systems that allow employees to move from the anchorage point to the area where they will work. Connectors should not be long enough to allow an employee to go over an unprotected side or edge.

In a fall event, body harnesses help to distribute the weight of the fall over the entire trunk of the body instead of putting all the force on one area. Body harnesses, as well as all other fall protection equipment, must be checked before each use and should be destroyed when they show signs of wear or when they have been involved in a fall event.

It is impossible to eliminate gravity—at least on Earth. But recognizing fall hazards and implementing engineering and administrative controls and using personal protective equipment correctly can defy gravity’s next win.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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