OSHA's Fight Against Fatal Falls

April 9, 2003
OSHA's regional emphasis program in the Southeast has helped reduce fatal falls by 23 percent. What is the agency doing to win plaudits from industry and labor?

Two years ago, we were having a tremendous number of employees dying as a result of falls from elevation," says Benjamin Ross, OSHA's assistant regional administrator for compliance programs in Atlanta. "Before last year, falls were either the number one or number two leading cause of death in our region."

In response, OSHA in 2002 started a regional emphasis program (REP) in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, the federal OSHA states in Region IV. The results were dramatic: fatal falls from elevations dropped from 65 in 2001 to 50 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The agency recently renewed the REP through 2005.

The success of the regional program may have broader implications, as the number of fatal falls has increased three years in a row at the national level, attracting the concern of top officials in Washington, D.C.

Tough Enforcement....

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the workplace fatality data for 2001, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw descried how common occupational fatalities remain. He then pointed to some good news: a significant drop in worker fatalities in manufacturing, from homicides and among youth.

"But," he concluded, "we have great concern over the increase in deaths among construction workers, Hispanic and Latino individuals, and those dying from falls."

So it may be no accident that OSHA's Region IV REP focuses on all three areas: construction workers, fall protection and Latino and non-English-speaking people.

Ross, the top enforcement official in the region, explained the program has two components:

  • Expanded outreach, education and compliance assistance efforts;
  • Intensified enforcement through increased inspection activity.

The primary difference on the enforcement side is that now anytime OSHA compliance officers (COs) see a fall protection violation, they are to stop whatever they're doing and inspect the facility. Every time they pass by a construction site, OSHA personnel have been instructed to scrutinize it carefully for fall hazards.

"It's easy, in a sense, to go out and have a great impact on falls because they're so obvious," says Ross. "Whether it's working without fall protection, guard rails or education, or all three, we can see this as we're driving down the street."

To avoid the "gotcha" charge sometimes leveled at the agency, Ross says that employers have been told, or warned, about this new strategy. The message appears to have gotten out.

"Their compliance officers have been instructed that if they observe any violation in fall protection, they're required to stop and do an inspection," observes Don Jones, safety and loss control manager for the Alabama branch of the Associated General Contractors (AGC). "It used to be optional."

Some members of the Alabama organization are not entirely pleased with the new arrangement. "I've had a few contractors get a wall-to-wall inspection because someone was seen from the street without fall protection," says Jones.

Still, Jones praises OSHA's new compliance assistance (CA) efforts and says there is mutual respect between AGC and the agency. "I'd give them a gold star," he says. But while there has been more outreach, he thinks the REP is still more about enforcement than education. Jones points out there are only two CA people in the entire state of Alabama, while there are many more inspectors. "You figure it out is that balanced?"

....Fair Enforcement

Other employers and associations in the region expressed fewer reservations about OSHA's new enforcement policy.

Mike Dunham, executive vice president of AGC's Georgia Branch, says: "If they see an obvious problem that is a hazard to a person's safety, I'm not sure it's a bad idea for them to be required to go in and inspect right away. I have not yet heard a contractor complain of that issue."

"I'm thrilled about it," asserts Wayne Jensen, head of Red Simpson Inc.'s safety department. "Even if it means a citation, if they can help me keep a man from dying, then so be it."

The company has recent experience with citations and the fatal hazards of heights. Red Simpson, headquartered in Alexandria, La., does electrical line work for utilities throughout the South. When a worker fell 86 feet to his death in 2001 while doing maintenance work on a transmission pole, OSHA initially fined the company $91,000 for alleged willful and serious citations for fall-related hazards.

Terri Harrison, OSHA's deputy regional administrator, says the final settlement called for a $21,000 fine; Jensen says OSHA conceded in the end that the fatality was not caused by a violation.

Since the fatality, the company has worked hard to develop a cooperative relationship with OSHA, and the agency now cites Red Simpson as an example of an improved safety culture.

One perennial bone of contention that can divide OSHA and its stakeholders is the balance between the "carrot" of compliance assistance, versus the "stick" of enforcement. While continuing to insist on strong enforcement, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw has been emphasizing compliance assistance, education and voluntary programs. In Region IV, stakeholders welcome the new approach.

"I believe both enforcement and compliance assistance are necessary," comments Steven Theis, vice president of safety for MYR Group, a subsidiary of L.E. Myers that is based outside Chicago. MYR Group is an electrical line contractor whose workers must often climb towers and poles. "I don't know if the right balance is there yet, but I like what I see."

Theis believes OSHA's outreach program is working, citing as an example efforts to help organizations build a safety culture not only with management but with workers. "What I like more than anything is that they're extending a hand of assistance, instead of mashing fingers."

Some labor representatives are uneasy about the new emphasis on compliance assistance, but not James Tomaseski, director of safety and health at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"There's no need to cite employers for everything. There are times when outreach can get you better results," says Tomaseski. "A strong enforcement program has to include an education piece. How can you comply if you don't understand the rules?"

The Appeal of Carrots

"We realize that a good program needs two hands," says Ross. "I think we're getting better at delivering compliance assistance. The combination of enforcement and outreach, training, and education allows us to reach a much larger audience."

Jonathan Worrell is an OSHA official who knows how the carrot and the stick can work together to change workplaces. He has been with OSHA for 29 years. For 17 of them, he worked in enforcement, but for the past two years, he has been doing compliance assistance in Georgia. Much of his time is spent on the fall protection program.

OSHA's biggest challenge, he says, is getting smaller employers and contractors to pursue compliance assistance programs. "We've had some successes, but we can't force people to come and be trained. They must take the initiative and realize it is their responsibility."

Yet in some ways OSHA has figured out ways to force people to receive training. Larger construction employers, Worrell notes, have difficulty getting smaller sub-contractors up to speed on safety requirements. "In some of our settlement agreements, our managers will have the employer make sure sub-contractors or their employees attend a training course," he explains. In addition, OSHA enforcement policy holds contractors responsible for the violations of sub-contractors.

The agency's enforcement strategy offers another incentive for contractors to require their sub-contractors to seek education and compliance assistance. "We tell contractors that we may do only a focused inspection at their site," Worrell explains. "First we'll see if the general contractor has a safety and health program for that site." If it looks like they have a good written program that addresses the four main construction hazards, inspectors will perform a walk-around inspection to verify the hazards are being properly handled. (Falls are the number one construction hazard, followed by struck by or caught between an object, trenching cave-ins, and electrical hazards.)

"If we don't find problems, we'll say you're doing a good job and we'll go somewhere else," says Worrell. "But if the written program is weak or the walk-around reveals problems, then we'll do a full inspection."

OSHA has also entered into partnership agreements with associations. The most important appears to be CHASE, or Construction Health and Safety Excellence. In November, the Georgia branch of AGC signed a CHASE agreement with Region IV.

"We've spent two years working toward this relationship with OSHA to benefit the industry and workers," says Dunham. "We're real excited about it and fall protection is a big part of it."

CHASE bears some similarities to OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program in that companies that achieve safety excellence will not receive programmed inspections for 12 months. The program has three levels of performance: red , white and blue.

Blue participants are at the highest level. They must have on-site inspections by a third-party consultant and meet goals such as a 7 percent reduction in injuries and illnesses from the four leading construction hazards. Their sub-contractors must have safety and health programs, and there must be a 100 percent implementation of fall protection equipment.

Hispanic Outreach

A critical component of OSHA's outreach effort is directed at workers and employers who do not speak English, especially Latinos. At least in Georgia, the effort may be paying off.

In Georgia in 2001, Worrell says, 21 of the 41 workers killed in construction work died because of falls, and 17 of the 41 fatalities were Latinos. Last year, 35 construction workers died in Georgia, 14 due to falls, and five of them were Latinos.

"For every fatality I'm aware of that involved a Latino, lack of communication has been a major factor," says Worrell. Because training is a critical part of fall protection, effective communication in a language understood by the worker and the employer is essential.

OSHA recognizes that it does little good for an employer to take a course if he or she cannot communicate later with workers. "If need be, they should employ someone who can communicate with their employees," says Worrell.

OSHA realizes the problems posed by Hispanic workers and contractors go beyond language. "There is a cultural difference," says Ross. "Do we believe there is some fear on the part of Hispanic workers? The answer is, 'yes.'" The agency put together a videotape instructing Latinos about their rights and duties, and conveying to them that OSHA has nothing to do with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Theis says the problem goes beyond Hispanic workers. "We have language issues with Portuguese and French-Canadians." One solution his company has arrived at is to make sure the foreman of each crew can speak English in order to communicate with management. The foreman then serves as translator for all the foreign workers on the crew.

Gun in the Pocket

OSHA's outreach efforts are paying dividends beyond reducing fall accidents and fatalities. OSHA is succeeding in educating employers about occupational hazards and, in the process, blunting long-standing opposition to its enforcement program. Employers have complained for years about OSHA's allegedly heavy-handed approach to enforcement, but Red Simpson's Jensen is not the only employer in the Southeast now using the word "fair" to describe the agency.

He notes that his non-unionized company has a "zero-tolerance" policy: if OSHA rules call for using fall protection, any worker found without it is fired straight away.

Red Simpson's analysis revealed that behind nearly every incident, there were bad attitudes driving the problem.

"Often it's our most experienced workers who don't use fall protection," says Jensen. "They set a bad example for the younger workers by slamming OSHA and company rules. But as we invoke zero tolerance, it lets everybody know we're serious. We have greater compliance, and we get rid of bad attitudes."

Jensen explains that his company does plenty of compliance assistance with its workers. "But I also need a gun in my pocket because some people just don't get it," he says. "So why wouldn't I recognize OSHA needs a gun, too?"

Sidebar: OSHA's Tips for Effective Fall Protection

OSHA's Tips for Effective Fall Protection

We asked OSHA officials in Region IV what advice they are giving employers to ensure effective fall protection. Among the points they are covering are:

  • Have a Plan: Develop and maintain an effective fall protection program, including management and employee commitment, training, and adherence to the rules.
  • Require Proper Protection Against Fall Hazards: 4 feet or more in general industry; 6 feet or more in construction; and 10 feet or more for scaffolding.
  • Use the Appropriate Fall Protection System: personal fall arrest equipment; guardrails; safety nets; positioning devices; warning lines; controlled access zones; safety monitoring; covers.
  • Proper Use: When using personal fall protection equipment, make sure it is the proper type for the job, that employees inspect it for wear before using it, that it is fitted correctly, and is properly attached to anchorage points.
  • Training: Provide supervisors and employees with proper safety training, including fall hazard recognition and the appropriate use of personal and other protective equipment.

For more information, visit OSHA's web site www.osha.gov and the technical links concerning fall protection available from the home page.

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