New Frontiers in Fall Protection Equipment

June 1, 2007
As falls remain one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational deaths, companies specializing in fall protection equipment are stepping up to the plate to make sure their products utilize the latest technology to meet proposed ANSI standards. But is it enough?

The numbers don’t lie. Falls are the No. 1 killer of construction workers and the second-leading cause of occupational death for general-industry workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2004 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

While there is no question that fall protection systems have come a long way since the first set of fall protection standards were introduced by the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Z359 Committee in 1992, the need for an updated standard has become apparent.

The proposed standard – ANSI Z359.2, also called the Minimum Requirements for a Comprehensive Managed Fall Protection Program – is the first of five standards sent to ANSI to be approved for fall protection and related systems.

The updated standard has spurred changes for current fall protection equipment. For instance, the standard requires gate strength requirements for snap hooks and carabiners to be increased to be able to sustain 3,600 pounds in all directions of potential loading. The previous ANSI standard required 220 pounds on the face of the gate and 350 pounds on the gate’s side, although many manufacturers already were meeting the requirements in the new standard before it was adopted. Harnesses now are required to have D-rings in the front as well in the back to maximize fall arrest, and twin-leg lanyards must be tested before use and include warnings on product labels on how to use them properly.

“This is an important development in fall arrest protection because there has been no change to the fall arrest/protection consensus standards in 20 years, yet falls remain one of the top four causes of on-the-job fatalities,” says ANSI Z359 Chairman Randall Wingfield when the standard was approved on April 26.

Studies have shown that the use of guardrails, fall arrest systems, safety nets, covers and travel restriction systems can prevent many deaths and injuries from falls. And fall protection manufacturers are fueled to deliver the safest and most technologically advanced equipment available – going beyond ANSI standards – because they want to be ahead of the competition.

Training Must Be Paired With Equipment

Despite all the innovations in technology in the past few years, experts point out that fall arrest systems and equipment, while important, only are part of the solution to reducing fall-related injuries and deaths. Employers and workers share the misconception that just having the right fall protection equipment is the best solution to keep workers safe. According to Michael Wright, president of New Carlisle, Ohio-based Safety Through Engineering, and Learning Leader Moniqua Suits, training is an often-overlooked but essential element when it comes to purchasing fall protection equipment.

“The challenge that exists is that people look at fall protection equipment as the sole solution,” Suits says. “Gravity still exists.”

According to Wright, the little training that is offered to workers is very low-level. Many companies consider watching another worker put a harness on or reading the instruction manual that comes with the equipment to be enough training. That couldn’t be further from the truth, Wright says.

“It’s sort of a double-edge sword,” he explains. “You don’t think you need a safety belt because you have a big car. That is, until you hit a tree.”

Scott Rousseau, vice president of the Houston-based manufacturer Web Devices USA, paints a more bleak picture.

“Every piece of equipment comes in a plastic bag and in that plastic bag comes a set of instructions and what usually happens to them is that they end up in the garbage can,” Rousseau says. “Employers just hand over the equipment to the worker, giving them a false sense of security.”

Training shouldn’t cover only what fall protection equipment is being used, says Rousseau. Sometimes, he says, it also is important to know what to do with a piece of equipment such as a lanyard when it’s not in use.

“There have been people who drag lanyards across the job site and they will get caught on something and pull [the employee] backwards, causing a fall at ground level,” Rousseau says. “This is something that is totally uncalled for, but is purely based on lack of training.”

Because workers have a lack of training, the fall protection products intended to protect them are being misused and have in several cases worked against them, according to Tracy Lang, senior product manager of Miller Fall Protection, a Bacou-Dalloz company. For that reason, fall arrest equipment hasn’t been getting the credit it deserves.

Lang cites a well-publicized case in Australia several years back in which a worker, who was toiling on a communications tower, fell down nearly 1,000 feet to the ground, even though he was wearing a double-leg lanyard. The man died and after the incident, technical briefs and special bulletins stated that the lanyard’s design was ineffective. After a full investigation, it was concluded that the worker had worn the lanyard incorrectly. Had he been wearing it correctly, he only would have dropped 5 to 6 feet as opposed to 1,000 feet to his death.

“This was clearly a training issue, and not a product issue,” Lang said, noting that companies sometimes ignore all the components of a fall protection system. Components such as anchorage points, body wear or fall arrest equipment, as well as the device that connects the equipment the worker is wearing with the anchorage points, are essential to making a piece of equipment work the way it should.

“If any of the three items is done wrong or used incorrectly, the fall could be catastrophic,” says Lang.

Comfort Makes a Difference

Lang and other fall protection companies assert that fall arrest equipment has come a long way in terms of comfort. Craig Firl, a product marketing manager for Red Wing, Minn.-based Capital Safety USA, jokingly says that there have been harnesses so uncomfortable that when a worker bends over, it feels as if “somebody is giving you a wedgie.”

According to Firl, current products are much lighter and more user-friendly to wear than ever before. Even the materials used on harnesses and lanyards are more agreeable to the user, with padding that gives workers more of a cushion – which is needed when workers are sitting on a beam for hours on end – and new nylon material that makes harnesses less cumbersome and cooler for workers to wear.

According to Firl, the fact that fall arrest equipment has become more comfortable is an important factor in reducing fall-related injuries and deaths. “Workers are more willing to wear it, which, in theory, eliminates the hazards,” Firl says.

In addition, there also are products available especially designed and adapted for the work environment. For instance, long gone are the days when a construction employee had to climb up a beam loaded down with 70 pounds of tool belts, says Lang. Now, tool belts that snap off are available so the worker doesn’t have to contort himself around his harness to reach the tools he needs. The tool bags can pivot and move with him, so if he now is laying on a beam on his stomach, his bags won’t tip, which can increase his overall safety.

“When you develop and produce a product that meets [workers’] needs and specifications to help them do what they do for a living, suddenly they are using them properly. If you go one step further and make them more comfortable, all the better,” Lang says.

According to Dr. J. Nigel Ellis, president of Ellis Fall Safety Solutions, comfort has become “an important selling point” but it doesn’t necessarily prompt the worker to use it any more than usual. The evidence lies in the statistics, Ellis says.

“Out of 1,000 people who die from falls, a substantial portion of them were wearing the so-called comfortable harnesses,” Ellis says.

Engineering Controls

According to Ellis, one of the elements missing from fall protection programs in industries such as construction is engineering controls. Companies should realize that engineering assessments are important because they can eliminate many fall hazards. In addition, having an engineer in the workplace can determine which type of equipment is best-used for the work environment of employees.

However, Wright warns that when contracting an engineer, the company should make sure that the engineer is schooled in structural engineering as well as in occupational safety.

“The word 'engineer' is misleading,” Wright says. “The person should be a structural engineer to determine if a building, for example, can withstand certain applied forces, and you have to be a certified safety professional to determine if the right equipment is being used, if workers are being trained properly, etc.”

Passive Protection More Feasible

Many manufacturers point out that the next best thing to eliminating a hazard via engineering controls is to incorporate passive prevention methods such as cat walks, guard rails and safety nets, among other products, according to Pavel Tretyakov, fall protection manager for Buffalo, N.Y.-based Kee Industrial Products Inc.

“Everyone likes the railing systems; it is a preferred way of fall protection for any OSHA inspector and safety consultant,” Tretyakov asserts.

Railing systems are popular because the worker doesn’t have to go through any type of training in order to stay protected. Once the guard rail is erected, usually on rooftops, the workers are automatically safer. The only way that a worker is in danger is if he climbs over the guard rail, asserts Tretyakov.

There are a couple of challenges in using a guard rail, Tretyakov explains, but advances in technology are helping to resolve them. Conventional guard rails often require some sort of penetration onto the roof deck, which can cause leaks. Building owners commissioning the projects would request that projects were preformed without the use of guard rail systems for that reason, says Tretyakov, which exposed workers to fall hazards. He adds there are guard rails available that are freestanding, which offer all the benefits of a conventional guard rail without damaging a roof deck.

Unfortunately, guard rails cannot be used in all types of work environments, says Firl.

“Obviously one of the best ways to protect workers is to eliminate the hazard altogether,” Firl adds. “But [when] working on a communication tower, for example, using a guard rail isn’t always possible.”

As a result of technological advances in fall protection, elimination of fall hazards no longer is such a far-fetched goal. Like guard rails, anchors and anchorage points often were disdained by contractors, who claimed there was not a structurally sound location to support fall arrest systems. Now, there are anchor points and anchorages being developed that don’t penetrate roof tops, wood frame structures, concrete or any other type of surface, which means that contractors no longer have an excuse not to use them, Firl states.

More Rescue Products Are Needed

With all the fall protection products that are currently on the market, there is still more to be done. Both Suits and Wright would like to see more equipment for worker rescue become available. According to Suits, so much attention has been given to fall arrest and fall restraint, that rescue products for post-fall are lagging behind.

“There still isn’t adequate equipment available for rescue,” says Suits. “One of the proposed ANSI standards has a chapter on rescue, so hopefully the industry will start focusing on that a little more.”

Rousseau, whose company is in the business of designing and selling rescue products for post-fall situations, notes that the issue of suspension trauma is garnering a lot more attention that it has before. Manufacturers that specialize in fall protection equipment will continue to research and design expanded, innovative product lines, not just becauseit’s their business, Rousseau insists, but because they are in “the business of saving lives.”

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