Protecting workers at height is a great challenge for occupational safety and health professionals. Given the nature of the work and the risks it presents, these environments create some of the most hazardous working conditions. Falls accounted for 17 percent of all worker fatalities in 2020.
One way to address this challenge is to develop an effective fall protection program. These four steps can help you make sure your employees have the right equipment, know how to operate it properly and keep it in good working order for use in the field.
1. Design With Workers in Mind
Every workforce is different. Contractors and safety professionals need to remember that fall protection systems must be designed in a way that best suits their workers, not the other way around.
“The system needs to be designed around the workers’ tasks, rather than forcing the worker to change to meet the design and limitations of the system,” says Thom Kramer, P.E., CSP and chair of the ANSI/ASSP Z359 Committee. “Have conversations with your workers and design with them in mind.”
Kramer notes that, years ago, one central question about fall protection was, “Do our workers have their harness on and are they tied off?” Over time, the world of fall protection has moved beyond that, so safety professionals need to ask other questions to help keep workers safe.
“While PPE is a very visible aspect of worker protection in the industry, the hierarchy of controls, which is fundamental for the safety profession, tells us that it’s not the safest way to protect employees,” says Kramer. “In many cases, we’ll be safer by using less PPE.”
Kramer stresses that using less PPE does not mean sending workers to the job site unprotected, it simply means utilizing more engineering controls. To help facilitate this process and ensure that the system is designed correctly, he emphasizes the need for a qualified person to be involved.
“A crucial part of a fall protection system is having a qualified person with the proper training, experience and expertise for the situations that your employees are exposed to on the job site,” says Kramer. “While many failures of a fall protection system due to a lack of engineering can be quite obvious (for example, something breaks), the failure to properly design the fall protection system with a human performance and safety mind-set can be equally catastrophic.”
One particular element of designing with workers in mind is examining the anchorage and where it allows workers to tie off. Anchorage plays a major role on the physical impact on a worker in the event of a fall.
“After you’ve evaluated whether you need to use PPE, you need to take a look at the anchorage, which is the secure attachment point for the fall protection system,” says Kramer.
He notes that while there is a growing segment of the market dedicated to leading-edge equipment, many metrics used to evaluate the injury potential of an active fall protection system are worse when using a foot-level tie-off.
“When you think about freefall, total fall distance, impact forces, compatibility issues, cutting potential of the material, rescue potential and the potential for personal injury, all those have more negative impacts when anchorage is low,” he says. “Elevating our anchorage is a fundamental that we must return to for our workers to be safer.”
2. Test Your Equipment
To have an effective system, you must have the right tools for the job. Testing of PPE and other equipment provides assurance that it will offer the appropriate level of protection during real-world use.
“Testing of the product is crucial for establishing a baseline expectation of equipment performance,” says Kramer. “However, while testing is important, it’s more important that the use in the field is aligned with the testing to ensure that the equipment performs well.”
Kramer encourages contractors to work closely with manufacturers so they can gain a better understanding of the workforce and the work being done so that they can develop fall protection PPE that is suited to each individual worker and project.
He notes that the ANSI/ASSP Z359 standards provide a minimum level of testing that should be expected from a manufacturer, but how your employees are using the equipment should spur you to ask questions and request more testing from your manufacturer. This additional testing can help inform both manufacturers and contractors on how they can improve the equipment being used.
Employers are also encouraged to discuss work applications with manufacturers to ensure that the manufacturer has validated the use been validated by that manufacturer for a specific application.
3. Train Your Workers
When thinking about training your workers on proper use of a fall protection system, keep in mind that fall protection equipment is not as commonly used as other forms of PPE such as hard hats, safety shoes and gloves. Therefore, it’s not enough to simply provide workers with a harness and assume they will know how to wear and use it properly.
“Fall protection PPE is unlike other forms of PPE,” says Kramer. “Fall protection equipment is not as intuitive because people don’t use as much of it in their personal life.”
The ANSI/ASSP Z359.2 standard states that a training needs assessment be developed, specific to the identified fall hazards on a particular project. The training can then be tailored to the system, equipment, and rescue systems in use and should include before-use inspection, assembly, use, and disassembly of applicable fall protection equipment.
One critical aspect of training is communicating to your workers that the system has been designed for them and that their safety depends on not deviating from that system.
“Do not let your workers improvise their systems, that’s where we start to see things go awry,” says Kramer. “If you don’t have documentation for the system, create it with your workers and specify the exact pieces of equipment they should be using.”
Above all, it’s crucial for workers to understand the purpose of each piece of equipment and what it can and can’t do in order to stay safe when working at height.
“I try to get workers to remember three words: use, limitation and restrictions,” says Kramer. “If a worker can pick up a piece of equipment and address those three words, they’ll be much safer.”
4. Inspect Your Equipment
Once you have the right equipment for different work environments, it must be properly maintained to keep workers safe. Fall protection equipment is used in many different conditions, and as such is subjected any negative impacts those conditions can have. Therefore, it is up to contractors, workers and competent people to inspect the equipment and make sure it is safe for use.
The wear and tear to fall protection equipment depends on the working environment. In construction environments, weld splatter or dust may get into the webbing of gear and cause deterioration. In manufacturing environments, oils, greases and chemicals are more of a concern to maintaining the structural integrity of the equipment.
There are three key inspections for PPE:
- Pre-use inspection. The user examines the gear before a shift to ensure it’s fit for service.
- Formal inspection. Performed by a competent person (other than the user), this inspection is typically conducted every 6 to 12 months, although many organizations perform monthly or quarterly formal inspections because of the harsh environments in which they operate and to ensure that authorized persons are not overlooking crucial items.
- Incident inspection. This inspection occurs in the event of an incident.While some parts of a fall protection system are discarded after an incident, others must be recertified by a qualified person. As an alternative, some soft goods can often be sent back to the manufacturer for residual strength testing.
Although workplace fall fatalities have continued to rise, Kramer reminds contractors, manufacturers, safety professionals and users that using the right tools and training workers to use them properly can help create safer environments for those working at height.
“We’ve never had equipment with the robustness we have today, and there’s never been more information and rigor about the design, testing and markings associated with equipment,” he says. “Prioritize your gaps and work with your leadership to identify the resources you need to help keep workers safe.”
Listen to our podcast with Z359 Committee chair Thom Kramer, P.E., CSP for further insights on fall protection and keeping workers safe while working at height.
Understanding Fall Protection
Our resources will help you properly design, implement and use fall protection systems.