Falls are a leading cause of injury and death in the workplace and the vast majority of these accidents are falls from heights. A fall from a height of even 2 or 3 metres can be devastating, and in most reported cases, fall protection was either missing or it was available and simply not used.
Most Occupational Health & Safety regulations require that employers provide proper training and equipment for fall protection. Generally, fall protection systems must be utilized where a worker could fall at least 3 metres (10 ft.) or where a fall from a lesser height could result in serious injury. In a lot of cases, workers believe that they will have enough time to grab hold of something or regain their balance before they fall. Unfortunately, this attitude can result in terrible workplace mishaps. Properly maintained and worn, a safety belt or full body harness attached to a secure anchor could save your life.
Assessing Risk, Planning & Setting Goals
Any work at heights should always be properly planned and supervised with nothing left to chance. Hoping for the best just doesn’t cut it. Conducting a thorough risk assessment of your workplace, helps to identify specific hazards and allows you to select the right equipment and take the necessary precautions for safety.
- Don’t simply take a ‘blanket’ or generic approach to fall safety. Ensure that you account for specific industry hazards and the exact nature of the work being executed.
- Involve local Occupational Health & Safety consultants in your assessment and planning process to gain greater insight AND to ensure that you are being compliant with safety regulations
- Safety product manufacturers can be a good resource when it comes to planning your fall protection program. They are normally very happy to come on-site to provide recommendations and training on equipment and procedures.
- Aside from assessing your normal day-to-day activities that are done at heights, be sure to account for the tasks that are one-offs or are only done occasionally. This could include things like maintenance or repair. Just because they aren’t done that often, doesn’t mean that they are any less dangerous.
- Your plan should include:
- Scheduled inspections
- How to identify potential risks on the job
- Clear criteria for when and how fall protection is implemented
- Worker training
- Fall protection systems & equipment (use, fitting & maintenance)
- Rescue and first aid for fallen workers
- Rescue for workers suspended by a fall protection system or safety net
- Beyond the planning itself, setting attainable goals for workplace safety helps to better define your strategies and procedures, and provides for more purposeful management
- Establish a strict reporting system and maintain accurate records for fall-oriented accidents or issues related to risk. This type of information is valuable when re-assessing hazards, equipment, procedures and for liability protection in the event of an accident.
- Ensure that your fall protection plan is well-documented, updated regularly and is clearly communicated (and readily available) to both workers and management
Fall Protection Systems
Once a company determines the need for a fall protection program, there are four primary options to consider:
If you can eliminate the fall hazard altogether by changing the work process, then the risk is removed with it.
When the risk cannot be eliminated entirely, companies should look to preventative equipment such as guardrails, gates or fencing. Guardrails should be installed at the edges of construction sites, roofs, and scaffolding whenever possible to prevent falls. Standards for guardrail dimensions may vary from province to province.
Fall restraint systems provide safety in one of two ways. They either keep workers from reaching an area where the fall hazard exists or it allows them to perform their duties from the height required while attached to the system. Workers are restrained using a harness or belt that is attached to a fixed-length lanyard. The lanyard (flexible webbing or synthetic or steel rope) is then attached directly to an anchoring system or to an anchored lifeline. Note that restraint or fall arrest anchors must meet minimum tolerances for weight bearing and force, and be approved by a qualified individual such as an engineer.
When a work environment allows for a restraint, it is the preferred method of fall protection because the fall is completely prevented. Fall restraint systems must be provided if the use of guardrails isn't possible.
Fall arrest systems protect you after a fall by stopping you before you hit the surface below.
Depending on the work environment and the application, there are a number of options available and specifics to consider.
- All fall arrest systems must use a personal harness rig that is CSA approved (Canada) and is fitted to the individual worker. It should fit snugly while allowing you to work freely and comfortably. This equipment must be inspected regularly by qualified individuals and must never be tampered with or modified in any way.
- It should be noted that not all harnesses are the same, and that they have specific classification ratings for their use. It is critical to use the right harness for the job. The manufacturer’s label found on each harness will also contain important product information.
- Safety belts must never be used in fall arrest applications. In the event of a fall, workers can be critically injured or die, as these products are not designed for this purpose.
- As with fall restraint systems, workers are anchored to a secure lanyard or lifeline for fall arrest safety. Keeping a potential fall in-mind, the length of these lines is very important in order to account for stretch or sag when they are weight bearing. This helps to avoid contact with the ground or other objects, and these factors must be determined by a qualified consultant.
- Often with lifeline systems, a ‘rope grab’ device is used to help stop a fall before it goes too far. Rope grabs are clamps that affix to your safety line and allow you travel along it while working, but will lock onto it in the event of a fall.
- Anchor points are referenced in the fall restraint section, but with fall arrest situations, the positioning of them is even more critical. They must be carefully planned, usually in consultation with an engineer, to account for the potential swing of a worker suspended from a lifeline.
- One of the best protection options available is a rigid rail system. Workers are attached to an overhead, enclosed rail via a secure line that provides safer work for multiple people at the same time. The free-fall distances are reduced in these cases and there is less chance of secondary fall injuries due to swinging into objects. Rigid rail systems also work well with retractable lifeline equipment that provides ease of movement while working.
- Safety netting is also an effective method of protecting workers. It can be used in a variety of applications including construction, bridge work, steel erection or anywhere that sufficient framing exists to anchor the system. Safety nets are often made from synthetic mesh, rope, steel rope, webbing or some combination of these materials. Trained personnel are required to install, dismantle and inspect the netting, and no worker should ever work above nets without proper training.
- Safety harnesses can also have built-in personal shock absorbers. This is usually in the form of tear-away webbing that gives way once activated by a fall. It’s main purpose is to help soften the impact for the worker and to reduce suspension trauma.
Training & Maintenance
All workers using an established fall protection system must be fully trained and assessed prior to undertaking any work involving heights. The training program must be comprehensive in scope, well documented and include both workers and supervisory staff.
It should be noted that employers are responsible for providing appropriate training, and safety equipment that complies with regulatory standards. It is also the responsibility of the employer to ensure that workers use the fall protection system at all times and that all equipment is well maintained.
- Ensure that any individuals who are responsible for inspecting fall protection equipment are qualified to do so. Inspections should be regularly scheduled and documented.
- Training should enable workers to identify potential fall hazards as they arise, determine which equipment to use in specific work environments and demonstrate proper anchoring and harness fitting procedures
- Training should include emergency and rescue procedures for all staff
- Extra attention should be applied to training new or young workers or if there are limitations caused by language barriers
- Replace or repair any equipment with obvious signs of damage or excessive wear
- After a fall arrest incident, the equipment used must be put out of service until it can be inspected and re-approved by the manufacturer, approved agent or a professional engineer
- Do not expose yourself or others to even greater risk by working at heights in poor weather or excessively windy conditions
- Do not work at heights if you are fatigued or ill to the point that your judgment or reaction time may be impaired
- Never undertake work in potentially dangerous situations if you are medicated, or if you have been drinking or using drugs
- It is always a good idea to employ a buddy system with co-workers when working at heights for equipment checks and harness fitting, active spotting for potential hazards and for fast emergency reaction in the event of a fall
Falls can lead to some of the most significant injuries on the job. Fortunately, many incidents can be avoided with proper risk assessment and the development of strict guidelines and procedures.