Falls account for 8 percent of all fatal occupational injuries from trauma and some 36 percent of construction fatalities. Causes of fatal falls can include unstable working surfaces, misuse of fall arrest equipment and systems and human error due to lack of training.
Members of the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) Z359 committee hope the proposed revision of the voluntary standards will provide employers, employees working at heights, supervisors, fall protection program managers and system and equipment designers and engineers with the standardized approach they need to develop effective fall protection management programs.
"We don't want corporations buying one component of the standards, although they can," says Randall Wingfield, president and owner of Bainbridge Island, Wash.-based Gravitec Systems Inc. and chairman of ANSI Z359. "It's an entire family of documents that can be used to develop a full, managed, fall protection program.
OSHA standard 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1) states that "Each employee on a walking/working surface (horizontal and vertical surface) with an unprotected side or edge which is 6 feet (1.8 m) or more above a lower level shall be protected from falling by the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems or personal fall arrest systems." The standard notes that employers have the duty to "determine if the walking/working surfaces on which its employees are to work have the strength and structural integrity to support employees safely." Employers also have a duty to provide guardrail systems, safety net systems or personal fall arrest systems for employees working at heights above 6 feet.
"Fall protection is still in its infancy," states Wingfield. "Many employers are not willing to make an investment in education, training and equipment."
Fall Protection Saves Lives
We know the proper use of appropriate and well-designed fall protection by educated workers saves lives. A construction worker from Michigan-based National Riggers and Erectors slipped from a steel beam six stories up while working at the Lambeau Field Renovation project in Green Bay, Wisc.
Thanks to his use of full fall protection, the construction worker was back at work shortly after his rescue. Less than 2 months later, a second worker slipped from a beam on that project, but also escaped injury because of his fall protection equipment and training. OSHA had signed a Strategic Partnership agreement with Turner Construction, the Lambeau Field general contractor, which required 100 percent use of fall protection above 6 feet. Turner Construction enforced that agreement, saving at least two lives in the process.
Defining Fall Protection
With the proposed ANSI Z359 standards spelling out the exact responsibilities of everyone involved in a fall protection program, including at least 250 pages of new documents and a section devoted to definitions, no one will be able to plead ignorance of proper fall protection equipment, training, management, oversight and design, says Wingfield.
Anyone involved in fall protection "will be challenged to catch up with the standard," he admits, "including all the [provisions for] personnel duties and responsibilities, training, fall hazard surveys, design requirements, anchorages, inspection, maintenance and rescue procedures."
The proposed standards include sections for revised definitions, full body harnesses, personal energy absorbers, connectors, self-retracting lifelines, vertical lifelines and fall arresters and design guidelines.
"Employers will no longer react to fall protection," says Moniqua Suits, director of training for Safety Through Engineering Inc., of the proposed standards. "Now they're going to know how to manage fall protection."
A significant change to the standards is the portion devoted to definitions. For example, in the proposed standard, an "authorized person" is the employee identified by the employer as a person who has been adequately trained to work at heights. A "competent person" is identified by the employer as a front-line supervisor, for example, who is overseeing authorized people who have received training and are using fall protection equipment correctly. A "qualified person" represents a degreed or certified person such as a certified safety professional who serves as a resource for the competent person. This person is responsible for understanding the predictability and design of fall arrest systems. The "program administrator" is responsible for coordinating the entire fall protection program.
"You are now saying, 'I, as an employer, authorize this person to work at heights.' That means ensuring that person is adequately trained and has the proper equipment; that the person supervising is trained; that the person who designed the system has designed equipment that is adequate; and that the anchorage system can withstand the force of a fall," says Suits.
Equipment and Training
Equipment design requirements and testing are important components of the proposed standards. For example, the required gate strength of hooks and carabiners currently is 250 pounds. Committee members propose to increase gate strength to 3,600 pounds.
"A number of fall-related injuries and fatalities are the result of hardware incompatibility," says Wingfield.
By the middle of next year, manufacturers will be required to incorporate snap hooks that have a 3,600-pound gate strength. Although OSHA likely will allow use of existing equipment for a period of time, "once the standards are published, many employers will ban older hooks and carabiners," predicts Wingfield.
Third-party testing of equipment is another addition to the proposed standard. "Testing can be conducted through an independent testing company, or, if it's conducted in-house by the manufacturer, must have a professional engineer signing off on the test results," says Wingfield.
Equipment is only as good as the education of thepeople using it. "In the past, training wasn't adequate," Suits admits.
Training is more than showing someone how to put on and take off a full-body harness. Do employees know if their anchorage is adequate? Do they know how to identify, assess and quantify hazards? Do they understand the height swing fall factors? Are employees trained in rescue?
"Rescue is not calling 911," says Suits. "Rescue is a pre-planned event, and the employee isn't 'rescued' when the fall arrest system stops his fall. He's rescued when he's safely lowered to the ground and receiving proper medical care."
Most importantly, say Suits and Wingfield, the proposed standards encourage employers to take a proactive approach to fall protection by providing everyone involved with a firm understanding of the requirements of a managed fall protection program, their role in the program and all the components of that program.
"Regrettably, compliance with ANSI standards is voluntary," says Wingfield. "Although everyone can benefit from these new standards, they are not law. OSHA must step up to the plate and work to incorporate new, more aggressive laws to protect the worker at height."