Fall Protection's Dirty Little Secret

Oct. 23, 2002
Sales of sophisticated new fall protection systems are booming, industry experts say. So why are more people dying from falls?

The fall protection market has expanded, even exploded, over the past 10 years," says Ron Cox, vice president for the fall protection division at Bacou-Dalloz, a leading global manufacturer of personal protective equipment. "But the tragedy is that even though more product is being purchased, there are more and more deaths."

At least one part of Cox's paradox can be easily confirmed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, except for a two-year hiatus in the late 1990s, the number of workers dying from falls to a lower level has been rising steadily for eight years (see graph on page 74).

While sales figures for the fall protection industry are not as readily available, several industry experts agree with Cox that business has been growing, especially over the past five years.

Cox offered his solution to the riddle: "The dirty little secret in fall protection is that there is not enough training to use or maintain the product properly. That's why more people are getting injured or killed."

Know Nothing, Fear Nothing

Traditionally, the failure to use any kind of fall protection equipment has been the most common cause of fall-related fatalities, and this still is probably the case, according to OSHA compliance officers.

"But nowadays, we're starting to see a new type of fatality," says Randall Wingfield, president of Gravitec Systems Inc., a Seattle-based company that specializes in fall protection education, engineering, consultation and equipment sales. "Now we're seeing fatalities with ANSI (American National Standards Institute)-approved equipment."

The falls could be the result of using the wrong kind of equipment for a particular job. "More often than not, it's what I call 'know nothing, fear nothing,'" Wingfield says. "Workers are attaching into systems that, in the event of a fall, are not going to arrest that fall."

In fact, using fall protection equipment improperly may be worse than using nothing at all, because workers with a false sense of security may not be as careful as they would be if they were not tied off.

Other experts in the field agree that the improper use of fall protection equipment is widespread.

"I see dangerous situations with about half the clients I work with who have spent money on fall protection and think they are doing the right thing," says Greg Small, P.Eng., M.Eng., vice president of engineering at Gravitec.

The situation is even worse, according to Bruce Duden, business development manager for Evan Corp., a design-build firm specializing in engineered fall protection systems with headquarters in Jamestown, R.I.

"My experience is that 75 [percent] to 80 percent of the companies I see are facing fatal hazards," Duden says. In addition to training, correct installation that is checked by an engineer, regular inspections and proper maintenance are critical - and often overlooked - elements in the effective management of fall protection.

Mistakes That Can Kill

Although the latest fall protection technology raises new safety issues, potentially fatal mistakes commonly made with the most basic equipment are a good place to start to understand Cox's "dirty little secret."

Gravitec's Kevin Denis says he likes to use the photo on pages 72 and 73 in his classes because it's a snapshot of the real world. "He's doing what the majority of the population does: doing the best he can with what he's got. The problem is he's guessing, and his life is at stake."

Experts believe that the growing popularity of horizontal lifeline systems raises a new set of training, installation and maintenance issues that are too often ignored by users. This method of tying off uses a cable connected to two anchorage points at the same level. Unlike a vertical or standard lanyard harness system, it allows the worker to move horizontally without having to change anchorage points. Employers and employees like this form of engineered fall protection because it allows for more freedom of movement and productivity.

"In the past five or 10 years, people have started to understand that horizontal lifelines are more complex than the vertical system," Cox says. "It requires more worker training, more engineering and more sign-off by qualified people because there are more anchoring options."

Wingfield asserted that horizontal lifelines are "very misunderstood" for a number of reasons. Workers sometimes think that if they weigh 200 pounds and the rope is rated at 12,000 pounds of tensile strength, they will be protected. "They don't understand the weak point may be the anchorage points," Wingfield says, because horizontal systems need stronger anchorage points than vertical systems. "Even after a very short distance, a falling body can weigh many times more than what an anchorage point can bear."

Craig Firl, vice president of technical services at DBI/SALA, a Red Wing, Minn., manufacturer of fall protection equipment, pointed to a second common mistake made with horizontal lifelines: inadequate clearance. "When you run a cable or a rope 100 feet across, you can get a lot of sag or stretch on the line," he says. "Add this to the distance the worker can fall because of his vertical line, and even if you're 20 feet up, you may hit the ground anyway." Understanding sag and deflection ratios requires charts, formulas and a qualified engineer, according to Firl.

Engineering Solutions

The safest - some say the most cost-effective - approach to fall protection is to eliminate the need for it. "What is the right kind of fall protection?" asks J. Nigel Ellis, Ph.D., CSP, P.E., CPE, president of Dynamic Scientific Controls, a turnkey fall protection services company in Wilmington, Del. "There's only one answer to that: you engineer out the hazard."

Ellis argued that not only is this method safer, but it saves on a "nightmare of costs" arising from training, re-training, inspection, maintenance, certification, re-certification, observation, application and equipment. "The job of true professionals," he asserts, "is to work themselves out of a job by educating people, and this is true of consultants, fall protection equipment manufacturers or safety directors."

While fall protection has been driven by manufacturers for many years, Ellis believes this is changing. "We're moving toward a hierarchy of controls as people recognize elimination of the hazard is the best option."

Gravitec's Small agrees, saying that if the need for the exposure to falling cannot be eliminated, passive prevention methods such as cat walks, guard rails, decking and walls are a good second choice to control fall hazards. After that, he recommends fall restraint systems in which a worker uses fall protection equipment in such a manner that it allows him or her to do the work but not to reach the edge of the structure.

Another way to use good engineering to reduce fall hazards is for architects to design buildings with this issue in mind. For example, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, contractors are required to install anchorage points into new buildings. It's more expensive to retrofit old buildings.

Ellis believes a huge problem confronting American companies results because "99 percent of U.S. firms" do not use engineers to check that fall protection elements shown in construction drawings actually will work. "Companies are being hoodwinked by construction firms who are selling that a lifeline can be placed in the building. But who's checking to make sure the place you're hooking up to isn't corroded?"

Continuing Education

Although engineering out the fall hazard may be the safest approach to the problem, experts in the field say that over the past several years, a large number of U.S. companies have determined that engineered fall arrest systems make more sense in many circumstances. This development makes proper training or education all the more important.

One of the problems plaguing fall protection education efforts is that there are no standards to help employers. OSHA offers only general guidance on what is required (see "OSHA's Fall Protection Training Requirements"), but the agency is making serious education and outreach efforts.

Wingfield, who chairs an ANSI committee (Z-359.0) that is putting together a managed approach to fall protection, says help is on the way. "In the past, ANSI standards dealt only with manufacturers. We're working on a family of standards that will spell out how to analyze hazards, and the educational requirements for instructors and for the authorized person working at heights."

In the meantime, companies have a variety of ways to make sure workers have been educated to use fall arrest systems safely:

  • Major manufacturers of the equipment specify training requirements and provide this service at their facility or on site.
  • Consultants and companies that specialize in fall protection education often can help with follow-up re-certification of fall protection systems and the continuing education of workers.
  • OSHA provides regional seminars and outreach on fall protection.

For example, in response to the fact that, after motor vehicle crashes, falls were the leading cause of workplace death, OSHA's Region IV in the Southeast established a regional emphasis program on fall protection earlier this year. Terri Harrison, OSHA's deputy regional administrator in the region, explains that the agency has pushed education and outreach. "Over the past five years, more and more methods have been coming out for personal fall protection. A lot of employers want to do the right thing but aren't aware of what's available," she says.

Harrison adds that simply "training" a worker in fall protection might not be enough. Employees need to understand how the equipment they are using works and how it will protect them from the variety of hazards they face, a process some experts prefer to call "education" because of its broader denotation.

"Generally, we run into problems," Harrison says, "where workers have been trained, but a different situation arises and they don't know what to do in this new situation."

Because of a growing number of Hispanic workers in the Southeast and elsewhere, the language barrier is a critical and growing obstacle to ensuring that workers understand the hazards they face and the equipment they use, according to Harrison.

What Gravitec tries to do in its education effort, Wingfield says, is to change attitudes. "We can't dream up every 'what if' situation, but in our courses, for the first time in many of these workers' lives, they're being asked to slow down and to think about what would happen if they fell and how it would affect their families."

The education of workers, like the maintenance of the equipment, is a continual, never-ending effort because of turnover and the natural human tendency to forget knowledge not used every day.

Cox puts it bluntly: "We're not talking about a sprained ankle. If you wear a harness wrong, you could be dead."

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