The Fundamentals of Fall Protection for Workers at the Edge

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The Fundamentals of Fall Protection for Workers at the Edge

For many industrial employees, working at height is a regular part of the job.

A worker can experience a fall in the blink of an eye, caused by a momentary lapse in concentration, misplaced footing, reaction to an unexpectedly loud noise, slipping or simply loss of balance. Falls are the second leading cause of workplace fatalities. But they don’t have to be. There is a lot that can be done to prevent falls, and it all comes down to understanding the fundamentals of fall protection. 

While there has been progress in recent years, falls from height remain a common cause of injury and death in industries such as oil and gas, construction, civil engineering, maintenance, scaffolding and utilities. Examples of when a worker may experience a fall include construction workers moving around a flat roof or a scaffolder putting platforms in place on the side of a building. No matter the environment, the safety of workers at height depends upon a process of rigorous risk assessments and detailed planning, followed by the application of best practice techniques and, of course, sourcing and using PPE that complies with the necessary standards. 

Conducting a Comprehensive Fall Risk Assessment  

All projects require planning, and planning for jobs that may require work from heights must begin with a risk assessment. At the outset of a project, the first step to mitigate risks is to identify foreseeable hazards and help to eliminate them. After all, the most effective remedy is avoiding work near edges wherever possible. However, for many jobs, this is unavoidable. In these instances, control measures need to be implemented and regularly reviewed to maintain a healthy and safe work environment. 

Identifying fall hazards requires locating all places and tasks where falls might occur. Spaces that typically need extra attention include: 

  • Structures being constructed or installed, demolished or dismantled, inspected, repaired or cleaned 
  • Fragile surfaces such as rusty metal roofs and skylights 
  • Potentially unstable surfaces 
  • Elevated work platforms or portable ladders 
  • Sloping or slippery surfaces such as glazed tiles 
  • Unprotected open edges 
  • Holes or pits 

Inspecting the workplace also means talking to workers and technical specialists to check various aspects such as the design, layout and ultimately, stability of these structures and their load bearing capacity. The proximity and number of workers that work in unsafe areas and the quality of lighting are also aspects that should be considered. 

Lastly, a proper assessment also includes reviewing all the available documents for a site including incident records and “near miss” incidents, which include events where no one was injured but if there was a slight shift in time or the worker’s position an injury could have occurred. It is useful to check information available from regulators, industry associations, unions and safety consultants so that dangerous situations are not repeated. 

Learning the ABCs of Fall Protection  

There are three core components of a fall arrest system, and they can easily be remembered as the ABCs of fall protection: anchors, body wear and connectors. Each of these components is critical for helping protect workers at height, and if one component is missing, then the system cannot work. Individually, these components will not provide protection from a fall. However, when used properly and in conjunction with each other, they can help keep workers safe. 

Finding the Right Anchor Point  

Commonly referred to as the tie-off point, anchors are secure points of attachment for horizontal or vertical lines, lanyards and other equipment to support the loads imposed during a fall. They can be permanent or temporary and vary to suit the type of structure available. When looking to establish an anchor point, workers should look for things that are structural, like beams, columns, channels, floors or roof trusses. They should avoid less stable options like conduit, PVC pipe, light cross bracing, power lines, fences, handrails or suspended ceilings. 

The position of the anchor point is key. An incorrectly positioned anchor point which is not directly overhead can expose workers to the so-called pendulum effect, where the worker swings back and forth after a fall. This can cause serious injuries if a worker hits nearby surfaces such as a wall or beam. Installing the anchor point directly above the work area and ensuring that that angle between the worker and the anchor does not exceed 30 degrees can help prevent such accidents.  

Safety is enhanced by positioning anchor points overhead, but this is not always possible on a flat roof, for example, or on a scaffolding structure being assembled floor by floor in an upward direction. When workers risk falling over an edge and do not have the option to use a higher anchor point, it is vital to use self-retracting lifelines that are fully edge-tested and approved to be attached at ground level. 

Using the Correct Body Wear  

For body wear, it is absolutely critical for workers to wear PPE such as full-body harnesses, and they must be worn at all times when working at height. Unfortunately, PPE for workers at height is not always used consistently, particularly when workers are moving between areas of a site and only spending part of their day near a potentially dangerous edge. Luckily, there are options available today that set new standards for ergonomics and user comfort. For example, there are harnesses with stretch-flex webbing around the legs and shoulders to accommodate the body’s movement and breathable shoulder and back padding to minimize overhead muscular fatigue and to keep workers cool. As manufacturers embrace these types of innovations in PPE, it means that more workers can consistently wear their PPE without discomfort all shift long.  

Connecting Anchor Points To Body Wear  

Connecting devices are the intermediate attachments that connect the worker's harness to the anchorage points. They can include shock absorbing lanyards, self-retracting devices, personal fall limiters and rope grabs.  

Broadly, connecting devices fall into two categories: those used for fall restraint and those used for fall arrest. Fall restraint devices prevent workers from reaching a hazard. Fall arrest devices allow workers to reach a hazard and help protect them if they fall. When it comes to the connection component, workers need to take into account the fall clearance distance and the work application. Around sharp edges, the lanyard should be exceptionally strong, durable and flexible. Workers grinding or welding at heights need to use non-flammable lanyards, for instance. 

Ensuring Proper Maintenance of Protective Equipment  

For PPE to be able to do its job as it was designed to, it is also important to inspect the gear before each use and to put it on properly. This means checking for burns, tears, fading and rusted buckles, to name a few. 

Comprehensive maintenance does not stop at PPE. All connecting and self-retracting devices can also be subject to wear and damage over time. Even a small amount of damage can compromise the performance of the gear and potentially lead to severe injuries from a fall. Stringent maintenance and inspection regimens for all components of personal fall arrest systems are crucial in creating a safe work environment. Inspection practices should include the process of bending the webbing of equipment over a pipe or other cylindrical rod from one end to the other. By slowly rotating the webbing, it is possible to check the entire circumference for cuts, snags, breaks or evidence of long-term degradation, such as swelling, discoloration, cracks, brittle surfaces and hardness. For a full checklist of how to inspect equipment to ensure safety, product inspection guides are available.

Keeping Safety Top of Mind  

For many industrial employees, working at height is a regular part of the job. By identifying workplace hazards early, using the correct equipment for the job and making sure all gear is well cared for and compliant with regulatory standards, workers can help stay protected.  

This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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