3 Risks Your Fall Arrest Planning May Overlook
Keeping your workers safe from falls means taking into account all the not-so-obvious risks they face.
If you have any workers who do part of their job at heights, you probably already know that you need to prove them with adequate fall protection. And while you surely provide them with fall arrest systems, install guardrails where needed, and provide all workers with training about the risks of working near leading edges, there are some things you have probably overlooked.
In this article, we'll cover three factors that are easy to miss when putting together a fall safety plan but that should be taken into account if you want to ensure a safe workplace.
Identifying Fall Risks on the Jobsite
Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry, accounting for 37% of construction fatalities in 2021. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but every one of these deaths could have likely been prevented with proper planning, adequate training, and the right equipment.
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 obvious and 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 noticeable than a large opening in a deck.
(Learn more in 5 Dangerous Misconceptions About Fall Protection)
To make those risks more evident, let's take a look at three risks that your fall arrest planning might be neglecting:
- Less obvious fall hazards
- Faulty equipment
- 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 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.
(Learn about Suspension Trauma: The Danger of Fall Arrest Systems)
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. 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 will tell you that it should be taken seriously as part of your fall protection program.
OSHA standards should be taken as the bare minimum to ensure worker safety. There are risks associated with a worker climbing a ladder under any circumstances. Your best bet is to make sure some sort of fall arrest system is in place in case something goes awry.
(Learn more in Ladders: Extend Your Reach Without Shortening Your Life)
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:
- Full-body harnesses: buckles, webbing, and D-rings
- Lanyards: rope or webbing and snap hooks
- Personal shock absorbers
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 because now 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.
|Free Download: Construction Fall Safety Checklist |
Conducting a swift but safe rescue will:
- Minimize the fallen worker’s distress and panic
- Keep the worker from experiencing the negative medical effects associated with hanging vertically in a fall harness
- 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.
(See A Primer on Rescuing Fallen Workers to learn more.)
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.
For all things Fall Protection, check out our Fall Protection Knowledge Center.
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