Since 1995, seven fall protection regulations and ten fall protection standards have been put in place to protect workers, yet fall fatalities are still on the rise. There were 650 fall fatalities in 1995 according to data from the BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The number of fatalities dropped dramatically during the Great Recession, but has been on the rise since 2010, with 849 fall fatalities in 2016. These trends are mirrored in the construction industry. There were 327 fall fatalities in 1995, 255 fatalities in 2010 and 379 fatalities in 2016.
To combat the rising numbers of fall fatalities, Thomas E. Kramer, safety consultant and structural engineer with LJB Inc., led a webinar, “Best Practices for Identifying and Controlling Fall Risk” hosted by Industrial Safety and Hygiene News magazine and sponsored by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Mine Safety Appliances.
“Making sure that workers use personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly is the biggest challenge when it comes to fall protection. We’ve been exposed to fall protection our entire lives. Since we were babies we’ve understood the general principle that you can’t defy gravity. Falls happen and typically, people don’t fall on purpose. But that understanding doesn’t necessarily translate to understanding fall protection in the workplace,” Kramer explained. “While protecting workers from falls is critically important, it’s also highly complex with a variety of regulations, standards, engineering solutions and competing priorities to consider. It’s really not surprising that fall protection is one of the most challenging aspects for safety professionals and organizations to address.”
Money spent on fall protection PPE has gone up 160 percent in the last 20 years, from a $300 million industry to about an $800 million industry today. The data doesn’t include scaffolding and lifts. However, falls have been the top Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citation seven years in a row. Overall workplace fatalities have decreased 17 percent, but fall fatalities have increased 30 percent.
Kramer says the biggest misconception is that no incidents at a location means there is no risk, which makes workers more likely to make mistakes.
“The reality is that they don’t happen often, but when they do it’s catastrophic and costly,” he said.
Organizations need to consider the impact human factors have on a jobsite’s safety. Addressing problems with training, fall protections and lack of supervision can strengthen a company’s fall protection program.
“You can’t manage results but you can manage the factors. Don’t focus on what to do to make sure the anchorage does not fail, but what can you have in place to set your people up for success,” said Kramer.
The first step is to change the conversation by soliciting employee input
“Look for a more functional solution, don’t dictate one and just have employees adjust. Establish feedback channels and bring attention to safety issues when noticed,” said Kramer. “Ask your employees why they are doing something the way they are instead of telling them how to do it. Don’t police them, but have a conversation. It’s about two-way conversations rather than one-way conversations.”
He also suggests requiring harness fit and suspension training.
“In five to ten years, I believe what will be required for PPE is not only a medical evaluation, but suspension exercises and fit tests,” says Kramer. “PPE for fall protection is not as intuitive as other forms of PPE. Hats, glasses and boots are worn in other aspects of life. But how often do your workers use harnesses outside of the workplace?”
He suggests that organizations focus on the proper fit, and break down the fitting process into simple steps. Breaking down what happens when a harness isn’t fitted correctly is another way to bring the point home. For example, Kramer has people volunteer to hang suspended in a harness, to gauge how long they’d like to hang like that.
“Suspension reinforces the importance of fit and heightens awareness during rescue operations,” he said.
According to Kramer, fall protection equipment has saved many lives, but people see it as a cure-all and not as a single safety tool.
“You cannot take the mistakes of the workers out of the equation. PPE is not a panacea because it is a product and can be misused or break,” he said. “PPE is an investment. Realize that when you purchase a PPE system you’re investing in it for years. You’ll need recurring training and to stay up-to-date on changes in regulations and standards.”
PPE can break or be subject to human error, meaning it isn’t the only solution a company should rely on. Having engineering controls in place can act as a safety net for situations where PPE alone does not prevent a fall.
To ensure that a company and its workers have a solid fall protection plan in place, Kramer suggests conducting pop quizzes for the program’s elements.
By checking how well employees follow the safety procedures and analyzing what measures a company has in place to prevent falls, a company can identify which areas need correction.
“It’s important to understand the engineering behind a company’s anchorage and clearance before deciding which procedures, training and equipment to use. Many company’s focus on anchorage and clearance after they’ve done everything else,” said Kramer.
Lastly, he suggests using an emotional appeal to get workers to buy in to safety.
“A decision about fall protection can be the difference between life and death. Focus on what or who is most important to your people and why they should keep themselves safe for the things/people they list,” he said. “Fall victims or witnesses are the most ardent proponents of fall protection. Others think it won’t happen to them, but it happens to someone in this country every day. Incorporate simple strategies, complete a hazard assessment, read or reread your safety policies, make sure they reference more than just OSHA and talk to workers about your safety culture to help prevent falls.”