Identifying Overlooked Fall Hazards

A fall protection expert explains how to identify fall hazards and assemble the protections needed to correct them.

Everyone in the industry who deals with fall protection on a regular basis most likely knows what a guardrail is, what lanyards do and just how much protection a harness provides. Yet, can anyone actually define what a fall hazard is?

According to J. Nigel Ellis, President of DSC, probably not.

"There''s no real answer to the question. Even OSHA can''t define it. In fact, there isn''t a definition anywhere in the Federal Register that actually says what a fall hazard is.," Ellis told attendees at ASSE''s Safety 2001 Conference and Exhibition Wednesday.

"I guess you could say a fall hazard is a bit like beauty -- it''s in the eye of the beholder. It doesn''t matter what you think it is or what other employees think it is, it only matters what your boss thinks it is."

While the ultimate job in fall protection might be to recognize hazards before an accident occurs, the process of identifying hazards and assembling the protection needed to correct them takes time.

Given the fact that the average safety professional wears several hats these days and has less time to devote to each individual responsibility, Ellis said it is imperative that they get to the drawing board to eliminate fall hazards before they are actually constructed.

"Too often, upper management sees us as outsiders. Our views are discounted, we''re excluded from planning and we''re reduced to pushing paper and keeping safety records," Ellis said. "The only thing management really wants to know from us is what is required by OSHA and what is the absolute minimum it takes to meet the requirements."

The real danger in this, Ellis said, is the fact that OSHA standards only cover a fraction of all fall hazards that exist in the workplace. To up the odds that you will catch any impending hazards, Ellis recommends eliminating hazards so that training and safety equipment become less of a concern and a lower administrative burden to our safety and management time.

If at all possible, Ellis said to prevent the addition dangerous falls from entering our workplace with a careful review of new structures and arguing successfully for better means of access and danger-free maintenance and repair. Otherwise, for every hazard that is recognized, we often instinctively jump immediately to a possible solution. But if none comes to mind that appears practical, we unrecognize that hazard. No further analysis is done and the hazard is buried, he said.

To prevent that from happening, Ellis cautions all safety professionals to keep in mind the following when identifying fall hazards on the job:

  • It does not take a 6-foot fall to produce severe injury;
  • Codes and standards are the minimum standard of care. Any fall hazards identified should be addressed, even those that do not have an accompanying OSHA standard addressing them; and
  • Safety elements, in the long run, are less costly than trying to change human behavior as human behavior is not predictable;
  • A fixed ladder proposal should be replaced with a fixed-stair idea whenever feasible;
  • A portable ladder or rolling scaffold should be replaced with an aerial lift whenever possible;
  • Some fall hazards are not visible, including facilities with poor access, changing conditions, skylights covered with grime or snow, weak roofs, floor openings and poorly guarded holes;
  • Fall equipment can pose its own fall hazards. For example, six-foot lanyards, used at remote ends to increase reach instead of attaching the intended center snaphook to the harness back D-ring, promotes a free fall hazard up to 24 feet and up to 31 feet total fall distance depending on design. This hazard causes an almost certain catastrophic collision with the structure or the ground;
  • Falling under dark conditions or sudden lighting changes promotes potential falling injuries to the head;
  • In 50 percent of all fatal falls, the worker is wearing a harness, however, 25 percent of all workers wearing harnesses don''t have their leg straps attached;
  • With every purchase of new equipment, companies import new fall hazards into the workplace. Equipment such as cranes, trucks, electric bucket trucks do not have any standards regulating them and do not have any built-in fall protection;
  • Safety rules should have as many sketches as possible to illustrate proper safety techniques.

by Melissa Martin

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