Fall protection involves far more than preventing a worker from falling at the work site. It should include protecting workers from falling into belowground spaces and preparing for their rescue if they do. It also encompasses preventing objects, such as tools, from falling on people and infrastructure below.
A complete fall protection approach considers all these risks and includes hazard prevention plans, product training, and rescue plans to avoid fall incidents, reducing injuries, damages, reputational risk, and even death.
The next time you arrive at a job site, make sure you are aware of every potential fall scenario and you are prepared and equipped with the knowledge and products to stay as safe as possible in every situation.
Protect yourself from falling
The legal need for fall protection is generally based on trigger height – the vertical distance from a working surface to the next lower working surface. According to OSHA, the most common trigger height is for construction at six feet. The trigger height drops to four feet for general industry work. On a supported scaff old, trigger height can be ten feet because a standard scaffold is five feet high, which is below the construction six feet minimum trigger height. Proper fall protection should be used any time you are at risk of falling.
To reduce the risk of falls, first consider eliminating your risk entirely through a change in methods or equipment. Next, prevent access to the fall hazard with a passive physical barrier, guardrails are the most common solution. Plan for the use of fall protection equipment to restrain yourself, while still providing freedom of motion for you as you work. In restraint applications, the fall hazard itself is not blocked, but you are prevented from accessing it with the help of specific fall protection equipment. Common restraint solutions include a PFAS system that includes a harness, a connecting device such as a lanyard or self-retracting lifeline connected to an anchorage. Typically in restraint the length of the connecting device is what helps prevent workers from accessing the hazard. If potentially accessing a fall hazard is unavoidable, a fall arrest system should be used. Arrest applications are utilized when the worker may encounter the hazard and potentially fall over an edge. Fall arrest applications require specialized equipment designed for the maximum arrest force, which means it must withstand not only the stress of your body falling, which is legally mandated to a maximum of 1,800 pounds, but also the contact between the lifeline and the leading edge, which may damage and compromise the lifeline.
Every fall arrest system is composed of an anchor, bodywear, and a connecting device. Common anchorage solutions can be mounted on a surface like a roof or utilize anchor straps to wrap around structural members. Bodywear includes any of the full-body harnesses compatible with fall restraint or fall arrest operations. A connecting device physically connects the harness to the anchor. Connectors range from simple fixed-length nylon or steel lanyards to single or dual self-retracting devices.
Confined space incidents*
Becoming trapped in a confined space is a fall risk that shares many components with its open-air counterpart. But, given the unique nature of confined space work, there are special considerations that deserve extra attention. If trapped in an environment with potentially diminished air and visual conditions, it may be a matter of survival.
Ideally, minimize your time working in these environments. When working in a confined space, or any work at height, make sure there is an evacuation and rescue plan. Lifting equipment lowers you safely into the space, where you stay connected via a safety harness. The lowering/lifting equipment includes a tripod that is lightweight and easy to assemble, yet can hold your weight, and even the weight of another person if designed to handle a dual rescue situation. Tripods use rescue lifting winches with self-retracting lifelines for active fall protection throughout the work period. Descender equipment can even be powered to speed the retrieval of a worker should the situation become more dangerous or used for work at greater heights. Sizes of tripods, rope lengths for various rescue heights, rescue poles and more should be chosen specific to the confined space work at hand.
Other types of required equipment for confined space operations include protective clothing (eye, hearing, head, and hand protection), communications equipment since dark, remote conditions may make voice/ sight communication impossible, and ventilators to maintain safe air quality.
Rescuers for confined space incidents should be trained and outfitted with proper rescue gear, which may include self-contained breathing apparatus. In many cases, would-be rescuers are simply other workers who know how to extract the victim from the confined space without being overcome by fumes.
Dropped object hazards
One of the deadliest height hazards that often goes overlooked is dropped tools and equipment. New developments and standards are bringing more focus to this hazard, but it may still be common for a company to not have a full prevention policy built around this serious hazard. Regardless of your experience with dropped objects prevention, there are some things you can do to enhance safety at heights and below.
Awareness on a worksite is a key step. Identify the risk areas for dropped objects. This may be very straight forward; locations where work will be performed at height are the areas where dropped objects may become a problem. When working multiple sites or with constantly changing conditions, the problem can be a little more complex as the risk areas move over the course of the day or as work progresses. In either case, it’s important to periodically review where the potential for a dropped object exists and act accordingly by ensuring use of proper tool tethering methods, or by setting up “no-go” falling objects zones on lower levels. Companies with welldeveloped programs understand where an object may fall and how far it might ricochet in the event of an impact, and take measures to prevent workers from inadvertently entering falling objects zones. They will also have a robust supply of tethering equipment to prevent dropped objects in the first place.
Consideration of every fall risk you may encounter while on the job is imperative to keeping you and others safe and maintaining best practices. Fall hazards happen in many ways, from above and below. When you are aware of every potential scenario, and how to avoid it, you will be safer and more productive on the job.
Erica Cole is product manager at Pure Safety Group, the largest independent dedicated fall protection company in the world. Learn more at puresafetygroup.com.
*Editors Note: Many confined spaces are designated as permit-required confined space. Only trained professionals are allowed in these spaces. Never enter a permit-required confined space without proper training and equipment.