During risk assessments, safety managers always should consider how working at heights can be avoided. However, this may not be possible. In such cases, collective protective equipment (CPE) and personal fall protective equipment (PFPE) are essential to safeguarding workers from falls.
Falls from heights remain the No. 1 cause of occupational fatalities in the United States. In fact, falls are the leading causes of private-sector worker deaths (excluding highway collisions) in the construction industry.
CPE and PFPE too often are treated as separate entities by safety professionals. Fortunately, by using the latest technology to fully integrate the two, safety managers successfully can enhance worker protection at height.
CPE measures – including guardrails, or working platforms – should take priority over PFPE.
However, the installation of CPE itself can put workers at risk unless appropriate safety planning is in place. One way of minimizing such risk is to preassemble CPE such as edge protection and barriers at ground level. Of course, this too may be infeasible.
Working close to an edge can be hazardous. One of the key challenges workers face is finding the right anchor point for their PFPE, generally a harness or self-retracting lifeline (SRL). One common mistake is for the worker to anchor themselves to the floor, which, in the case of a fall, increases the risk of the lanyard breaking over the edge.
For this reason, whenever workers are at risk of falling over an edge but do not have the option to use a higher anchor point, it is crucial to use SRLs that are fully edge-tested and approved to be attached at ground level. A quick-locking mechanism for reducing the fall arrest distance especially is important when workers must operate at relatively low heights – in construction, 6 ft. and in general industry, 4 ft.
Previously, companies typically used SRLs for horizontal and vertical applications, even when individuals were working close to the edge of a roof. Users might add a steel sling at the end of the SRL to ensure that it didn’t break on the roof edge. OSHA’s updated Walking-Working Surfaces standards, however, require employers to provide workers with edge-tested fall arrestors whenever they are operating horizontally – with the anchor point positioned at ground or shoulder level – and are at risk of falling over an edge.
Yet arresting a fall is not the only consideration. Controlling the way in which the worker falls is just as important. For example, an incorrect anchor point can expose workers to the so-called “pendulum effect.” Unless the anchor is positioned directly overhead, a worker who falls can swing back and forth like a pendulum. In these cases, the wider the angle between worker and anchor point, the longer it will take for the descending worker to reach a position directly beneath the anchor, at which point the SRL can arrest the fall. This situation can cause serious injuries if a worker strikes nearby surfaces such as a wall or protruding beam. Installing the anchor point directly above the work area and ensuring that that critical angle does not exceed 30 degrees will help prevent such accidents. It also is vital to bear in mind that the distance to the anchor point above the worker’s head should never exceed the vertical clearance below the worker’s feet. Otherwise, if a fall occurs, the worker would hit the ground before the SRL could stop them.
The installation of barriers is a particularly risky operation. It’s vital that the worker has access to an overhead anchor point when they handle equipment being lifted by a crane. Choose lightweight brackets that support overhead anchors, that easily can be attached directly to the building structure, and that quickly can be moved from one position to another as construction progresses.
Besides making installation of CPE safer, a comprehensive strategy that integrates collective and personal protection can help tackle other hazards. Everyday tasks such as fitting decking for horizontal formwork, or loading and unloading vehicles, also can be extremely risky and require appropriate planning.
When performing tasks such as loading and unloading or maintenance and cleaning, if working at height on vehicles cannot be avoided, the first step always should be to adopt collective solutions, including gantries and platforms. Once again, compatibility with PFPE is a key consideration when selecting CPE. For example, a loading platform or cherry picker always should have an anchor point that is tested to withstand the worker’s weight if they fall over the guardrail. Similar accidents may occur when the platform is moving or is hit by another vehicle.
When workers undertake tasks on the vehicle itself, it is vital to choose brackets that specially are designed to support overhead anchors and that can be positioned adjacent to a truck bed. Such complete fall arrest systems keep workers safe at height, while offering the operating radius they require. Their anchors always should be compatible with harnesses and tested for use with SRL.
However, selecting the right CPE and PFPE is not enough unless its users properly are trained. Training always should instruct workers on which PFPE to use and how to use it correctly, according to specific risks and environments. It also should teach them where to attach the fall arrestors onto the building structure to avoid the pendulum effect.
One problem, particularly in the construction industry, is that where safety managers generally are responsible for PFPE, they are not always in charge of CPE, which often is instead specified by site managers. Thus, the installation and use of CPE may not form part of a business’s basic safety strategy. New technology can help address this lack of integration.
Connected safety solutions that integrate radio-frequency identification (RFID), sensors, software and cloud technology now enable safety managers to access vast streams of data. These capabilities can be used to ensure workers receive the right training in the use of their PFPE and CPE, and that this equipment is up to date in terms of regulatory compliance, maintenance and suitability for its purpose.
Technology now enables manufacturers to embed RFID in CPE so safety managers and workers can check, via a glance at their smartphones, what PFPE is needed to safely install a certain piece of CPE. It also is possible to install scan gates at the entrance of restricted areas, to automatically scan all equipment passing through. Even from remote locations, safety managers immediately can check that the equipment is compliant and fit for purpose, and that the workers using it have the right training to use it.
This intelligent, real-time data approach not only helps prevent accidents, it also enables businesses to streamline PFPE and CPE compliance management, and to make informed decisions quickly. In doing so, businesses can reduce costs and downtime while increasing efficiency and productivity. This approach also means that workers know they can count on smart safety programs and measures. So they can concentrate on the job at hand – rather than worrying about whether their equipment is working properly.
Working at height always involves some risk. Adopting a more comprehensive approach to safety – one that fully integrates collective and personal protection – remains of paramount importance. CPE always should be the first line of defence, but safety managers have a key role to play. They must ensure that workers are fully aware of all the hazards that working at height entails, and that they use both PFPE and CPE effectively.
Dominique Vansteenkiste is a high-risk business leader at Honeywell Industrial Safety.