NSC: Fall Protection in the Chemical and Plastics Industries

Workers employed in chemical and plastic production facilities encounter a range of situations that present fall hazards: They access elevated equipment; work on roofs, vessels and trestles; and work near skylights and confined space entry points. Brandon Burnette, president of Agile Safety, discussed common fall hazards and solutions specific to these industries at the NSC 2007 Congress and Expo in Chicago this week.

Burnette outlined what he calls the hierarchy of falls to protect employees exposed to these hazards: eliminating or reducing the risk of falls, passive fall protection, active fall protection, accepting the possibility of a fall and providing a safe rescue.

“Once we have a sense of where our hazards lie, then we can attack them,” Burnette said.

First, Burnette explained, take steps to eliminate the fall hazard. Whenever possible, prevent the worker from having to climb to a height at all. “Retrofit your existing processes to bring these down to floor level,” Burnette suggested.

When this is not possible, there are still ways to reduce the number of times worker must ascend. Something as simple as replacing incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs with longer lasting LED lighting increases the amount of time between changing light bulbs. This means workers will have to ascend less often to change bulbs – and risk falling in the process.

Fall Prevention: Active and Passive

Safety personnel must seek both active and passive solutions to prevent falls. Passive fall protection includes a standard guardrail or a 39-inch or higher roof parapet. Special types of guardrails can meet specific needs. A non-penetrating temporary guardrail might be ideal for roofs because it can eliminate loading or leaking concerns. Other guardrails come equipped with pins so the rail can be folded down if necessary.

Ladder safety gates are another passive means of fall protection to prevent workers from falling into the ladder opening. While gates are ideal, Burnette said chains can used be instead, but only “if they provide equal, adequate coverage.”

Employees working on roofs must be protected from falling through skylights. Skylight guards must be able to bear a minimum of 200 pounds and should cover and draw attention to the entire skylight. Otherwise, the risk for injuries or fatalities caused by unprotected skylights is too high, Burnette said.

“I go atop buildings all the time – brand new buildings – with skylights that don’t have the right skylight guards on,” he said.

Active means of fall protection include restraint cables secured to anchors. Alternatively, workers can be connected to a cable short enough to ensure they cannot reach the edge of the roof or platform.

Accepting the Fall

No matter how many precautions are taken, health and safety professionals must recognize and accept the possibility that falls may occur.

A personal fall arrest system includes three parts to contribute to a worker’s safety: anchorage, a harness and a lanyard. The anchorage point must be strong enough to support the worker’s weight during a fall, the lanyard must be adequately shock absorbent and the harness must fit properly and not put too much pressure on the body after a fall. Employees also must be educated in how harnesses should fit and be worn.

“I’m astonished how few people know how to put on a harness properly,” Burnette said.

Every element in the fall protection equipment must be used correctly to avoid injury or fatality, especially considering the force a fall exerts on the anchorage point, the connector and the person’s body, he added.

When a fall does occur, assuming that the worker is wearing a harness properly, safety personnel must plan for a safe and fast rescue. Devise a system so a fallen worker can easily be reached and rescued. Someone who falls and dangles 20 feet below a bridge, for example, needs to be quickly and safely retrieved instead of left dangling out of reach in his harness.

Horizontal Lifelines

Burnette is a big supporter of horizontal lifelines. “They’re fun to work with, they’re interesting, and they can go in a lot of different places,” he said.

The key to horizontal lifelines, he added, is that a qualified person must always oversee their use. Important considerations include knowing how many people can be on the system at one time, how long the line should be and whether it needs additional support to reduce total fall distance.

“What a lot of people aren’t aware of is the amplification of forces that are involved with a cabling system,” he said. Sag can create a greater total fall distance, so minimize the sag or add more intermediates to correct this problem. Burnette stressed that no one should ever install a homemade or non-engineered horizontal lifeline system.

Rail systems can be used instead of horizontal lifelines and do not present deflection or load amplification issues. These systems, however, are heavier, more expensive and take more effort to install.

No matter which type of system is used, safety personnel in the chemical and plastics industries must take every necessary precaution to reduce the possibility of falls and protect workers if a fall does occur.

“If we can eliminate those hazard events or cut them dramatically, it’s going to be a much safer workplace,” Burnette said.

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