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This Is Why OSHA’s No. 1 Violation Never Changes

Oct 13, 2021
Closeup of man's hands putting on a fall protection harness in front of a teal background

Every autumn, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) releases its top 10 list of citations. For the past 11 years, fall protection has held the No. 1 spot.

In 2019, we spoke with fall protection expert Thom Kramer, P.E., CSP, managing principal for LJB Inc., ASSP director-at-large and chair of the ANSI/ASSP Z359 Fall Protection Committee, for some insight on why OSHA’s most frequent violation stays the same year after year. We also discussed what safety professionals can do in response to statistics that attempt to highlight areas for improvement in the workplace. Here’s what he said.

ASSP: What would you like people to know about what you do every day?

Thom: I spend a lot of time thinking about the information we need to put in the hands of workers to make them safer. That’s what I work to do every day, whether I’m serving the clients that come to LJB or writing Z359 standards or leading a webinar. I also spend a lot of time thinking about who we need to reach to get workers out of harnesses — and I don’t mean that in terms of leaving them unprotected. I mean that in terms of applying the hierarchy of controls to create safer systems that don’t rely on equipment to protect workers at height.

ASSP: Why is OSHA’s annual top 10 list of violations so significant for safety professionals? Why do people care about it, and what can it teach us?

Thom: I think it’s a big deal because, like people in other industries, we are always looking for trends and benchmarks. Where are the issues happening? How do those issues possibly apply to me? But as lagging statistics, these numbers aren’t always beneficial. The list is somewhat beneficial in helping us understand what happened, but it isn’t always beneficial in helping us understand why so we can develop solutions to improve. We need to balance this type of information with other, more proactive methods of managing our work environments, such as risk assessments and improving our processes.

As one example for the data, The Center for Construction Research and Training does a lot of the data analytics for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is able to break down many fall statistics in finer detail. That allows us to better understand which interventions we need to use to address every aspect of the situations we face.

ASSP: People seem to focus more on OSHA’s top 10 list than more nuanced analytics. Do you think that’s because it’s simpler and more digestible?

Thom: I think it’s because the OSHA top 10 list is something we’re used to seeing every year. It’s also something we can track over the past 20 years and notice the trends. But again, it’s probably not the most effective tool we can use. By the time those individual numbers get to you or somebody at your organization — unless that issue happened at your facility — they might not be representative of what you’re doing or where your employees face the most risk.

ASSP: Fall protection has been No. 1 on OSHA’s list of citations since 2011. Before that, it was scaffolding. Why do you think fall protection has been No. 1 for so long?

Thom: This is only my perception of the industry, but I think fall protection has been at the top of the list for a while because it’s a very obvious item. It’s very visible, and it’s one of the leading causes of death in the workplace. So, I think OSHA has made a targeted effort to address these situations. When they have a target, they direct more resources toward it. If they hear of a situation, they’re going to go out and address it right away. Focusing on one area is naturally going to lead to more citations.

ASSP: The total number of OSHA fall protection citations went down this year, with 6,010 violations in 2019 compared to 7,216 in 2018. Help us put that in context. Is it good news? Which factors do you think contributed to the change?

Thom: We’ll find out if it is good news when the data on the fatalities and serious injuries is released. Building on this, I’d like to know whether citations are down because — due to various budgeting constraints — OSHA wasn’t able to get as many inspectors out there. Fall protection was still number one and that’s concerning. If we had great trend data between citations and fatalities and serious injuries, it might be good. I’d be fine with there being zero citations as long as there were zero fatalities, but that isn’t the case. Between 2016 and 2017, which is the most recent information we have, we went from 849 fall fatalities to 887 fall fatalities. I believe the 2018 fatality and injury data is due to be released in mid-December.

ASSP: What would have to happen for fall protection to move out of the No. 1 spot? Do you think we’re likely to see that in the near future?

Thom: We don’t want other issues to overtake it, right? If there are more fatalities in other areas that move fall protection from the top spot, that’s not a good thing. That said, we need to look at nuanced data that show us areas for intervention.

One example is simply workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). The fit of a harness is really critical. Workers have to be mindful about what they’re using and how they’re using it. I’m convinced that if we can help workers understand how to properly put on a harness, explain why it’s important and what it should look like, they’ll be more mindful about this and other aspects of equipment use.

ASSP: What are some training strategies that can teach workers to be more mindful?

Thom: Continuing to use harness fitting as an example, it’s a good idea to physically put people in the harness. Have them do an inspection. Have them do a fitting. Have them make adjustments. Then, have someone look at that and say, your leg straps are too loose or your dorsal D-ring is too low or too high. Go through point by point and demonstrate what a harness fitting looks like.

Then, have each person suspend in the harness. I’m not talking about suspending them 20 or 60 feet in the air. Just use a tripod and lift them 6 inches so that they understand what a good harness feels like when they’re suspended. The first time somebody goes through a suspension, I’d rather they’re 6 inches off the ground versus 60 feet up in the air, because you have no idea how they’re going to react. That can be a bad thing not only for the worker, but also for others that may be trying to support and rescue them.

ASSP: Do you think lists of compliance-driven safety statistics have the potential to shift the focus away from risk management?

Thom: Yes, they can. Compliance is down at the bottom level, then there’s a safety mind-set where risk management is at the highest level. When we look at these rankings of violations, it can focus our attention in the wrong place. For example, I think prevention through design is a great option for people thinking about these issues from a risk management standpoint, since addressing fall hazards early in the process provides greater opportunity to use more engineering controls versus PPE. If we can use a prevention through design mind-set, we can do a better job of addressing hazards.

ASSP: As you know, there is a question being debated among safety professionals right now, and it would be great to hear your perspective: Are we addicted to PPE?

Thom: It comes down to a whole mind-set. It’s the prevention versus cure mentality. When you’re using PPE, it’s more of a cure mentality. Whenever we can address things from a preventive standpoint, everything’s much better. If you can prevent cancer, for example, then you don’t have to cure it. So, applying that thinking to working at height, if we can prevent the person from using a harness, we don’t have to worry about all the risk inherent in using the harness.

One person I know compared a piece of fall protection equipment to opioids. The opioid epidemic has shattered lives and caused many deaths, but opioids also serve a medical purpose. There are real reasons why opioids are used in the treatment of pain — just as there are real situations when PPE is appropriate. When they’re misapplied and used more than they should be, we end up with higher risk. I’m not directly comparing PPE to opioids and the epidemic, but I think we can take some of the lessons learned from that crisis and apply them to safety. If PPE is applied too much and in the wrong situations, organizations may believe they’re providing appropriate solutions, but they’re really still putting people at risk.

ASSP: What didn’t we ask? Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thom: I would encourage people to get involved in the consensus standards writing process because that’s really what will make the biggest impact on these numbers. OSHA regulations are important, but sometimes that contributes to a compliance mind-set. OSHA regulations don’t evolve as quickly as consensus ANSI standards do. So get involved, especially if you work for an organization that uses the equipment and exposes workers to the hazards these standards cover. The more of these organizations that get involved in developing standards, the better.

Workplace Falls are Preventable 

Our Fall Protection Safety Toolbox has resources you need to identify and control risks, provide relevant training, and protect workers at height. 

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