If you have workers at heights, you probably already know that you need to provide adequate fall protection and fall arrest systems to keep them safe. And while we all know what guardrails are for and how much protection a fall harness offers, there are some things we often overlook.

In this article, we'll cover three factors that are easy to miss but that should be taken into account every time you plan your fall arrest strategy.

Identifying the Risks

Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. In fact, they account for nearly 40 percent of construction deaths in 2015. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but every one of these deaths could have likely been prevented with proper planning, equipment use, and the right training.

Safely managing risk means being able to effectively identify potential fall hazards or threats to the safety of workers at heights. A big part of this is ensuring that qualified professionals conduct full, comprehensive assessments on a regular basis. Moving to a new worksite? Have to change tactics to finish off a project? Risk assessments are also a good idea in those types of situations.

Unfortunately, not all fall hazards are in your face. That’s why it’s especially important for employers and workers alike to be aware of potential risks that might be less obvious than a large opening in a deck. Let’s look at three risks that your fall arrest planning might be neglecting:

  1. Less obvious fall hazards
  2. Faulty equipment
  3. Fall rescue

Less Obvious Fall Hazards

It’s easy to identify a gaping hole in the floor as a safety risk for workers, but some hazards are less apparent and require a more nuanced approach to risk assessment.

Skylights

Skylights are one of the most common “hidden” fall hazards. Since they’re often covered by glass or plastic, workers mistakenly think they are safe. Some even go as far as to lean or sit on them to take a break. But it's important to remember what a skylight really is: a hole in the roof. Skylights are designed to keep animals, debris, rain, and snow out of a building – not to hold the weight of a human.

OSHA rules mandate that “Every skylight opening and hole shall be guarded by a standard skylight screen or a fixed standard railing on all exposed sides.” Whether or not there is an open hole is irrelevant. The Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission determined that the term “opening” may also refer to areas where is a less dense material creating a void in a denser one – as is the case with a skylight.

Regulations for fall protection around skylights differ by industry, so be sure to confirm which standard applies and select your arrest (or restraint) system accordingly.

Ladders

Perhaps this one should be obvious, but not everyone takes it into consideration. The term “fall protection” tends to conjure up an image of a worker near an edge or large opening (learn more about Safety Around Leading Edges). But the truth is, something as commonplace as a ladder can be a risk to worker safety, especially when it's not recognized as such.

Between 2000 and 2009, falls from ladders made up 43 percent of all fatal falls and were involved in an astounding 81 percent of all treated fall injuries for construction workers. OSHA standards require that fall protection be provided for employees climbing or working on fixed ladders above 24 feet. There is currently no legislation that mandates protection for workers on portable ladders, but common sense is required.

OSHA standards should be taken as the bare minimum to ensure worker safety. If a worker is climbing a ladder under circumstances that could be dangerous, your best bet is to make sure some sort of fall arrest system is in place in case something goes awry (see Ladders: Extend Your Reach Without Shortening Your Life for more ladder safety tips).

Faulty Equipment

A fall arrest system is only helpful if it works correctly. Worn, damaged, or otherwise faulty equipment is no use to a worker experiencing a fall.

It is critical that workers learn how to inspect their fall arrest system components. Their safety depends on this, but it can be overlooked by busy managers. Training should be provided on a regular basis and should include how to inspect:

Fall Rescue

A worker falls while reaching over an edge and is caught by their fall arrest system. There's no doubt some relief, but it's short-lived – they're hanging in mid-air and no one seems to know what to do next.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this one sounds out of place. But many safety professionals feel that rescue is the most overlooked aspect of fall safety.

OSHA guidance says that employers must provide prompt rescue in the event of a fall. But what exactly does “prompt” mean? This is not clearly defined, so it is left to the discretion of the employer. The question to consider is: how long is it acceptable to be suspended in a full-body harness? An Air Force study showed adverse health effects in participants in as little as 12 to 15 minutes. Safety experts recommend 3 to 5 minutes as a responsible rescue time.

Why is it so essential to conduct a quick (but safe) rescue?

  • To minimize the fallen worker’s panic
  • To mitigate negative medical effects from hanging vertically in a fall harness
  • To reduce the risk of suspension trauma, which can result in unconsciousness, followed by death, in less than 30 minutes

The only way to meet that 3 to 5 minute recommendation is to have a clear plan in place prior to an incident occurring. The plan doesn’t have to be complex, but it needs to work.

Conclusion

Fall arrest planning isn’t just about identifying the obvious hazards and managing them. Effective planning means looking for those not-so-obvious risks, too. It’s easy to overlook things like hidden hazards, equipment inspections, and rescue planning – but the stakes are too high. When lives are at risk, make sure your bases are covered.