Working at heights presents one of the greatest hazards for any worker, in general industry or construction. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, 4,405 fatal falls occurred in U.S. workplaces. This is only part of the story. Think of how many other people, the spouses, children, friends and coworkers were affected by these events. In addition, let’s consider how many more injuries, both serious and minor, were caused from falls.
Fall protection, and a working knowledge of the various systems, is critical when employees working are at heights. When is fall protection required? That depends on several factors. Fall protection in a general industry setting is four feet above the working surface. In a construction setting, fall protection is generally required when work is being performed at six feet or more above the working surface. However, there are some exceptions. For example, when working on scaffold, fall protection is not required until ten feet. Employees performing steel erection may not be required to have fall protection until they are working at fifteen or thirty feet above the working surface depending on what type of work they are performing. And certain trades such as those in the roofing industry may use warning lines and safety monitors if installing fall protection is infeasible. The bottom line is not only to know how to protect employees, but know when fall protection is required according to the work that is being performed.
There are three basic types of fall protection normally used to prevent falls:
- Fall prevention
- Fall restraint
- Personal fall arrest systems (PFAS)
Each have their advantages and disadvantages, but all serve the same purpose which is to protect the worker from death or injury due to fall hazards.
Fall prevention, such as guardrails, are installed as a means to prevent employees from being exposed to the fall hazard. They are considered to be passive fall protection because the employee is protected without having to install or wear additional equipment to be protected from the fall hazard. They must simply work within the boundaries of the guard rail. For obvious reasons, this is the best form of fall protection. However, installing guardrails may not be feasible, then other means of protecting employees from falls must be implemented such as fall restraint or personal fall arrest systems.
Fall restraint is a system that is installed to allow the worker to approach the fall hazard, but prevent him or her from reaching the edge. This system includes a body harness or body belt attached to a restraint line. This is line then that is secured to an anchor point. Remember, body belts can only be used for positioning or restraint, not as part of a fall arrest system. A best practice is to keep the employee at least two feet from the edge using this system. If employees must work at the edge of the fall hazard, then personal fall arrest systems may be the required solution.
Personal Fall Arrest System (PFAS)
Person fall arrest systems prevent the worker from hitting the lower level once he or she has fallen. These systems include a body harness, a shock pack or extension, connectors and an anchor point. As with all personal protective equipment, personal fall arrest systems are considered the last line of defense. Employees using personal fall arrest must be trained in the proper use, inspection, and limitations of all parts of the system. In addition, retrieval of the employee is critical in the event he or she has fallen. Suspension trauma, caused by the lack of circulation in the legs while the employee is hanging in midair, can be fatal in as short as fifteen minutes. A rescue plan must be in place prior to any employee using a personal fall arrest system.