Do you remember this iconic photo, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper? It depicts New York City construction workers in 1932 casually eating lunch on a beam 800 feet in the air (yikes!); safety regulations certainly have come a long way in the last 90 years. A few decades ago, falls were still a major contributor to workplace deaths across multiple industries. In 1994, 42% of all construction workers’ deaths were a result of a fall, and in most cases, fall protection was not being used properly. Today, fall protection systems are readily available, but due to misuse and a lack of knowledge, falls continue to be one of the leading causes of workplace injuries. Even though humorous slips and trips are frequently shared across the internet, we at Safety Service Inc. know that workplace falls are no laughing matter. Read on to discover all of the ins and outs of properly protecting your employees.
What is a Fall Protection System?
A fall protection system is a set of equipment that safeguards employees from falling or catches them in the event of a fall. Personal fall arrest systems (PFAS), positioning systems, and travel restraint systems are the most common types of fall protection systems. We’ll dive more into these options below.
Personal fall arrest system
OSHA requires employees to be provided with personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) when they are at risk of falling vertically 4 feet or more, depending on the specific industry. To be honest, even a 3-foot fall sounds painful, but I digress. A PFAS consists of many components that work together to provide ultimate protection, including a body harness, anchorage, and connector. To picture what this looks like, think of your middle school high ropes course or the dreaded flying scene in your theatre’s production of Peter Pan (also likely a middle school memory).
Window cleaners, steelworkers, and bridge painters are just a few examples of employees that are required to do their jobs on exposed vertical surfaces. A positioning system, which is a series of equipment and connectors that attach to a body harness or belt for support, allows employees to freely use both hands while leaning and helps maintain balance while elevated. Though positioning systems help prevent falls of more than 2 feet, they are not considered a PFAS, as we discussed above; so, it is suggested that a backup personal fall protection system is also utilized.
Travel restraint system
Lastly, the travel restraint system is defined by OSHA as a “combination of an anchorage, anchorage connector, lanyard and body support that an employer uses to eliminate the possibility of an employee going over the edge of a walking-working surface.” That probably sounds a lot like the other two options that we discussed above, but here is how it differs. While others systems ease or catch a fall, a travel restraint system removes the risk completely by tethering a restraint line from a weighted anchor point to a body harness. This is the perfect solution for someone laying scaffolding or working on an unprotected roofline.
What are the Four Methods of Fall Protection
Although there are multiple systems available to protect your employees from workplace falls, some are more effective than others. It’s important to evaluate the specific risks of your industry to determine which method should be your first line of defense.
This method is ranked as the most ideal for obvious reasons. Preferably, your business would remove any risk that an employee could fall, but to do that, workers would need to be prevented from ever doing their jobs at an elevated height. If your employees are structural ironworkers or roofers, this method is not only unfeasible, it doesn’t make sense. However, when doing a thorough elevation of your worksite, you may eradicate some risks by thinking outside of the box. For example, light bulbs can be changed by using extendable tools to mitigate the chance of a fall.
As we mentioned above, depending on your industry, sometimes fall risks can’t be avoided, but there are steps you can take to prevent them. Barricades, such as guard rails, can be applied to elevated construction sites so that your workers don’t take a step too close to the edge. Harnesses and lanyards, which are characterized as personal protective equipment (PPE), can be used to catch employees before a fall can occur.
3. Fall arrest
While barricades and restraint systems guard against falls altogether, fall arrest protection safely stops a person who is already falling. One example of this is the application of safety nets around the perimeter of a rooftop or below a bridge to catch falling tools or people. Your workers may be having second thoughts about the reliability of some netting separating them from a perilous fall, but each section of the net must have a border rope for webbing that has a minimum breaking strength of 5,000 pounds. Even more common than netting is the use of personal fall arrest systems that use harnesses and devices to deaccelerate a fall.
4. Administrative controls
Administrative controls alone do not adequately protect any employee from falling, but when used alongside other methods of fall protection, they can add a layer of protection. Examples of administrative controls include setting up risk-reducing policies, training employees to recognize hazards, or utilizing a spotter to keep an eye on elevated employees’ movements.
When is fall protection required?
OSHA’s fall protection requirements vary by industry. General organizations must provide fall protection to employees who are working at elevations of four feet or more. Shipyard employees must receive fall protection when they are working at elevations of five feet or more, construction workers require fall protection at six feet, and longshoring operations must supply fall protection at eight feet. Apparently, longshoring workers are a little braver than the rest of us. Regardless of the height, any employee that is working over hazardous machinery or equipment must be given some sort of fall protection.
Recently, OSHA updated its general industry standards for fall protection. Advances in technology, industry best practices and national consensus were all taken into consideration when refreshing these requirements. Now, employers are given more flexibility when determining which fall protection system to use and are allowed to choose one of the following systems that best meet their needs: guardrail, safety net, personal fall arrest, positioning, travel restraints, and ladder safety.
OSHA also streamlined the rules across general industries to make compliance easier to achieve. Rope descent systems, which are widely used across industries for elevated work, are now codified as a rule for elevations at a maximum of 300 feet. Building owners must declare in writing that permanent building anchorage used in rope descent systems have been certified, maintained, and tested as being able to support 5,000 pounds of weight per worker bound.
Ladder safety requirements were also updated since according to OSHA, falls from ladders comprise 20% of all fatal and lost work-day injuries in general industries. The new rules include a mandate that all ladders are required to be examined before use and must be able to support their maximum intended weight. Mobile ladders must be able to support four times the maximum intended weight.
Now, employers are required to provide training to all workers who work in hazardous situations and use personal fall protection. A proficient instructor must teach employees how to use personal fall protection systems and rope descent systems. They must be instructed on how to examine and store their equipment and to identify fall risks. All training must be given in a language that the workers can understand.
The construction industry is subject to its own OSHA safety requirements. Foremost, employers are required to survey their sites and decide if walking or working surfaces are strong enough to safely support their workers. Once that is determined, employers must decide if fall protection is needed.
Construction workers are required to use fall protection if they are working at an elevation of six feet or greater, or if they are working less than six feet high but are near dangerous equipment. Your employees may need fall protection when they are walking near a skylight, working on a roof with unprotected sides, located on an elevated site near falling objects, or above working above open machinery, among other situations.
OSHA allows employers to select the fall protection system that is most ideal for their worksite. Guardrails, safety nets, and personal fall arrest systems are all acceptable conventional options. Certain construction activities allow for less common fall safety devices. For example, workers on a low-slope roof are sometimes permitted to use a safety monitoring system paired with a warning line system. Those on a low-slope roof 50 feet or less in width are allowed to just use the safety monitoring system.
What are the ABCs & D of fall protection?
Employee safety should be a top priority in any industry. Just like doctors wear PPE to defend against germs, worksite employees who do their jobs at elevated heights or around hazardous materials need to be outfitted with proper fall protection. Luckily, remembering the correct components that form a personal fall arrest system are as easy as reciting the ABCs.
Just like you’re only as good as the company you keep, your fall protection system is only as strong as its anchor! The anchorage point supports the fall protection system and the suspended worker in case of a stumble. According to OSHA’s standards, it must be capable of withholding a load of 5,000 pounds per person or in some cases, at least two times the applied load.
A body support harness wraps around employees’ upper thighs, pelvis, chest, and shoulders to uphold their weight in the case of a fall. Harnesses must be readily adjustable for optimal comfortability and ease of use. You don’t want workers struggling to hurriedly put them on, which only increases the chance of injury. Harnesses are designed to avoid putting pressure on major arteries. However, if the straps are not properly fastened, they can cut off circulation to extremities, which is why careful body support selection and employee training are key.
Your anchor point is stabilized, and your employee is suited up in a body support harness. However, both of those factors mean nothing without the use of a connecting device. The purpose of a connecting device is to attach the body support to the anchorage point. There are multiple kinds of connecting devices to choose from.
- Shock-absorbing lanyards – These are the most common type of connecting devices. Their flexible lines activate after an employee falls six feet, deaccelerating the fall and absorbing shock to reduce injury.
- Non-shock absorbing lanyards – Just like shock-absorbing lanyards, non-shock absorbing lanyards have flexible lines that deaccelerate after a six-foot fall. They do not absorb shock, but shock absorber pads can be added.
- Self-retracting lifelines – These lifelines activate after an employee falls a mere two feet (which probably feels a lot further when you’re suspended in the air), making them more ideal when employees are working at shorter elevated heights.
Descent & Rescue
Even with careful planning, worksite falls do happen, and it’s important to have a plan in place that allows a fallen worker to be easily recovered and brought to safety. If a worker falls less than three feet and is uninjured, they can ascend on their own to their original position. However, if the fallen worker has sustained injuries and needs help, a mechanically aided assisted rescue is needed. In this situation, a competent worker (anyone but Bill) will use their fall arrest pack to descend to the wounded employee. In certain situations, the rescuer may need to attach a device with an aerial lift to the worker to lower them to safety.
Why is Fall Protection Important?
If the rest of this article hasn’t already convinced you of the necessity of fall protection, let me leave you with this fact; According to NSC, in 2019, “880 workers died from falls and 244,000 were injured badly enough to require time off work.” In fact, according to OSHA, “Falls are among the most common causes of serious work-related injuries and deaths.” No job is worth the loss of life - not even one where you get to take a hard-core photo eating lunch 800 feet in the air. Taking time to safely equip workers and maintain worksites can greatly reduce injury and death.
From an industry perspective, workplace injuries are bad for business. If an employee is injured in a fall, they will need to take time off to recover, resulting in a loss of productivity and profit. In 2019, the equivalent of 105,000,000 workdays were lost due to work-related injuries. Also, if the harm was due to a lack of proper precautions from the company, other employees may quit out of fear and fewer qualified individuals will apply to vacant jobs.
Workplace injuries cost businesses a total of $171 billion in 2019. Liberty Mutual stated in 2015 that specifically workplace falls, slips, and trips cost businesses $12.59 billion in workers' compensation costs. Each employee injury results in an insurance claim, which can greatly raise your company’s future insurance premiums.
We can help you protect your employees!
Our workplace protection products give your company a competitive advantage! Increase productivity and eliminate risks by procuring high-quality PPE for your biggest asset – your employees. Visit our website to learn how we can help.