There’s More to Fall Protection Than Harnesses

By Safety Management Group

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One of the most common hazards on all types of jobsites occurs when a worker has to perform a task in an elevated location. Whether that location is on a permanent platform, scaffolding, on a ladder, or suspended from above, the situations may differ, but the ultimate hazard is the same: the potential for a significant injury or death from a fall.

Many workers assume that falls do not become dangerous until they happen from a significant height, but a fall of as little as six feet can cause disabling injuries. Besides the dangers associated with the fall itself, workers may fall onto objects that increase the potential for injury.

That explains why proper fall protection is a critical component of safety programs for all elevated tasks. However, many workers do not have a thorough understanding of proper fall protection and the correct use of personal protective equipment. They may assume that wearing a high-quality lanyard that’s connected to part of the structure is the beginning and end of providing for their safety. That’s not always the case.

Start with safe anchorage

You can strap on the best lanyard in the industry, but it won’t save your life if you tie it off to something that isn’t a safe anchorage point. Workers often make the mistake that anything that’s attached to a structure or is made of a material such as steel provides a safe anchorage.

There’s good reason that OSHA mandates that anchorage points be able to withstand 5,000 pounds of force. While you may not be able to measure that in the field, here’s an easy-to-remember standard for anchorage points: if you wouldn’t be comfortable hooking your car or truck to an anchorage point, you probably shouldn’t hook yourself to it. (And keep in mind that if more than one worker is attached to an anchorage point, that will impact the maximum force it can handle.)

The safe route is to determine where you can tie off safely before you need to. Before the project begins, identify and mark spots that will provide safe anchorage when needed. In addition to considering the strength of the anchorage points, also think about where staff will be working in relation to the anchorage points. Choosing those spots in advance reduces the chance that a worker will tie off to an unsafe site.

Look sideways, too 
When we think about fall protection, our tendency is to think only of gravity and the vertical aspect. However, it’s just as important to consider the horizontal aspects of a safe anchorage point. Falls often produce a pendulum effect, in which a suspended worker swings back and forth – sometimes into other workers, the structure, moving equipment, or hot work. That’s why most manufacturers recommend no more than a 30 percent offset from the anchorage point to the body position.

Another fall-protection issue related to horizontal effects is when a worker will be performing tasks at multiple locations on a roof or open floor area, and chooses a 50-foot retractable lanyard for convenience. While the worker assumes that once the lanyard is secured, he or she can move safely anywhere in that range, the reality is that the lanyard may stretch horizontally to a length that’s longer than the vertical drop. In other words, if that worker falls, he or she may fall into the floor or another object before the lanyard’s safety clutches activate.

Generally speaking, fall distance should be determined by measuring from the anchorage point, along the length to which the lanyard will stretch out, plus the length of the body. It’s a good idea to add a safety factor of an additional three feet to allow for problems with the equipment, miscalculating the distance, or an unusually tall worker. The harness should be tight, and freefall distance should be minimized, because this will reduce recoil and stretch, and the forces they place on the body.

The lanyard is just part of protection 
Fall-protection lanyards are a wonderful safety device, but they are only part of what safety professionals need to consider. If the lanyard works exactly as engineered and catches the worker in mid-air, the next step is recovery.

It’s critical to plan for that recovery, because you’ll generally have less than five minutes to bring a suspended worker down before he can begin to lose circulation in his legs and even develop blood clots. Relieve the pressure too quickly, and the sudden rush of blood through the circulatory system may cause other problems. In practical terms, that means you can’t afford to wait five or ten minutes for local first responders to get to your jobsite.

If you’re going to perform elevated work, you need to have a rescue plan for all aspects and contingencies in place before work begins. It must address how you’ll recover workers who are conscious, and what type of equipment on the site – such as vertical lifts, manlifts, or ladders – may be available to help with the rescue.

It should also include training for employees who are working in the area, so they’ll know what to do. Otherwise, they may actually complicate the rescue, such as by injuring themselves as they instinctively grab for the lanyard, and creating the need for two rescues. If the suspended worker is unconscious or has significant injuries, pulling him up may worsen his condition and make it more difficult for the rescue team to provide assistance.

Knowledge trumps complacency
Workers who do not have a thorough understanding of fall protection put themselves and their coworkers in danger. They and their supervisors may also become complacent about the hazards and their level of protection.

Companies need to place a high priority on training everyone involved. In addition to proper identification of anchorage points and use of equipment, that training should ensure that everyone knows what to do when a mishap occurs. After all, there’s a big difference between having only a perception of safety and achieving effective protection.

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