Unprotected leading edges account for about one-third of all fatalities in construction, and leading edge work remains one of the most dangerous tasks in the industry (learn more about OSHA's Fatal Four).
Employers need to protect workers by ensuring that leading edges on their worksites are secure. And according to OSHA, anyone working on a leading edge six feet or higher should be protected by a personal fall arrest system, a safety net, or guardrails. But how do you know what type of leading edge protection is the best fit?
What Are Leading Edges?
Leading edges are simply the unprotected edge of a horizontal surface. It could be the edge of a roof, a deck, or a scaffold platform. Since these edges often lead to a significant drop, they pose a serious fall hazard to those working near them.
Floors, roofs, and other surfaces can pose a special challenge while they're under construction, since the leading edges can change location as the structure is being built. Leading edge protective equipment, then, must be moved or able to accommodate these changes to ensure that workers remain protected throughout the course of the entire project.
Keeping Workers Safe on Leading Edges
Before starting any construction work, it's essential to draft a thorough safety plan. It should include a description of all the tasks that workers will need to perform near leading edges, as well as the hazards associated with leading edge operations. All relevant safety measures should be outlined, including how workers and tools will be secured to reduce the risks associated with falls from leading edges.
Performing a hazard assessment will help you determine what kind of protection you'll need to use for leading edge work.
The First Step: Training
Proper training is the first step to keeping workers safe around leading edges. Workers should be trained to recognize leading edges, the fall hazards they pose, and any risk of collapse associated with them. They should also be taught how to use fall protection equipment, erect barriers and guardrails, and know what kind of signage is required.
Areas with leading edges should be considered control zones, and only trained workers should be allowed to access them. Bystanders and workers without the requisite training should not be allowed near leading edges.
Personal Fall Arrest System
A personal fall arrest system is a good way to provide protection for a single worker who faces a fall hazard. Workers need to ensure that their fall arrest gear is properly worn and that they are securely connected at all times to a proper anchor point.
If others are working nearby, using a self-retracting lifeline rather than a standard lanyard will keep the lifeline spooled, eliminating tripping hazards.
Keep in mind that the location of leading edges can change over the course of the project. Workers relying on a personal fall arrest system to keep them safe must always have suitable anchorage available, even as the fall hazard changes location. Reusable anchors provide a convenient way to ensure that a fall arrest system provides continued protection.
Note also that as leading edges move, the fall distance might change. Make sure that there is always enough clearance for the fall protection system to activate and keep the worker from being injured (learn about Fall Arrest Force and Clearance).
Unlike a personal fall arrest system, guardrails will provide protection to multiple workers. Anyone coming near the leading edge will be safer with the presence of a secure barrier.
They also do not protect a falling worker. Instead, they are designed to prevent the fall in the first place by preventing workers from getting too close to the leading edge or providing a constant visual and physical reminder of the leading edge's presence.
Note that guardrails can be used in concert with personal arrest equipment to provide additional protection.
Safety nets combine some of the advantages of these other fall protection systems. Like a personal arrest system, they can protect a worker who has fallen. And like guardrails, they can offer protection to multiple workers at once.
Safety nets can also give a certain amount of protection to those who are working underneath a leading edge. By catching falling tools, materials, or debris before they can injure those below, a safety net can act as an important line of defense against dropped objects.
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Proper signage should be used to indicate the presence of a leading edge and to specify whether personal fall protection is required before approaching it.
According to OSHA, signs should be placed at least three feet from the leading edge operation. This allows workers sufficient time to react after seeing the sign and before reaching the unprotected edge.
As an employer, you are responsible for identifying the hazards on the work site, including the presence of leading edges. You are also responsible for assessing whether fall protection is required and, if so, to provide employees with the necessary equipment to perform their work safely.
Workers must be provided with training that is appropriate to the hazards they will be facing. Workers without the requisite training must not be assigned to perform work near leading edges.
When leading edges are present on your work site, make sure workers have the equipment needed to keep them safe. Leading edge protection, after all, does more than prevent injuries – it saves lives.
For all things Fall Protection, check out our Fall Protection Knowledge Center.