Safety Construction Fall Protection

The fifth annual National Campaign to Stop Falls in Construction took place in May, 2018. Contractors and organizations across the country held events such as training and stand-downs to raise awareness. Despite these annual events falls in construction continue to be a leading cause of fatalities. In 2016 there were 5,190 worker fatalities according to the BLS. Of these, 991 were construction fatalities, 21.1% of the total, and of those 991 construction fatalities, 384 were due to falls. This means that 38.7% of the construction fatalities resulted from falls. With innovations in technology and construction processes, why does this trend continue? The CPWR has extensive data that evaluates these trends, and shows that small organizations have a disproportionate number of incidents (61.4%) relative to the number of workers in those organizations. For more statistics on the construction industry refer to the CPWR 2018 Construction Chart Book.

Fatalities from falls are more than just a statistic for the families that lose a loved one. June 2018 marks a sad memory for my own family, as this month is the two-year anniversary of my son’s wife losing her brother to a fall through an unprotected skylight while working as an electrician on a construction project here in Colorado. At 31 years old he was a son, brother, husband, father, and firefighter. His loss is felt daily, as he left behind a wife, a one-year-old child, and an extended circle of family and friends. Statistics will never be vivid enough to describe the emotional loss to the people who experience it.

Where should an organization start when monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of its fall prevention programs? How does worker performance and training affect the success of a program? The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has resources that have been developed for the annual national campaign to prevent falls in construction. The NIOSH three step process includes steps to plan, provide and train. Let’s look at each of these.

A safe project always starts with good planning. This is the opportunity to pull the crew together and discuss how work will be performed that day. In Colorado, the Colorado Safety Association works with member companies to develop tools and techniques such as job hazard analysis and audit forms that can be used to assess risks on the
job site.

Providing the right equipment can be more difficult than it sounds. Women comprise 9% of the U.S. construction workforce, a number that is slowly growing. There are ongoing challenges around finding PPE that fits women. The nature of the work being performed is also a key consideration. Self-retracting lifelines (SRL) designed for leading edge work are different than an SRL designed to prevent a fall using an overhead anchor point where there is no sharp edge exposure. Fall distance and the position of the anchor point will dictate the type and length of
lanyard needed.

Considering the potential for human error is a key component of selecting and providing the right equipment on a project. In many cases, the error is unnoticed by the worker – in other words it is not intentional non-compliance. When planning the work and selecting the equipment ask the following questions:

1. What is the potential for workers to select the wrong equipment if there are multiple choices to be made?
2. How can this potential be reduced?
3. What are the costs of reducing the number of choices if those choices were initially made based
on cost?

Let me explain the last question. I was meeting with a steel erection contractor on a project where there were both leading edge and fall hazards where overhead anchor points were available. As we were talking to the workers we identified that almost every single employee had selected the SRL without leading edge protection for leading edge fall exposures. The safety director was frustrated and spent a significant amount of time telling the workers why they had the wrong equipment. I observed that both SRLs looked very similar. The company had provided training to show the workers the right equipment. I asked why the decision was made to have two kinds of SRLs instead of just providing the one that would protect for both of the exposures on the project. The answer was that the SRLs for leading edge work are more expensive. I understand the decision to make economic decisions. This must be weighed against the risk of a worker mistakenly using the wrong equipment and suffering a fall as a consequence. Does the risk outweigh the savings? Does the productivity and efficiency lost through continuous checking and re-training outweigh the savings? Are we making it easy enough for workers to be successful?

Training is the last element in this three-legged stool, and if it is not provided, or is provided but not effective, then the stool will not stand up. Organizations and safety professionals must understand the difference between training and information. Providing information in the form of having the crew stand around while someone discusses the hazards, or reads from a sheet of paper, is not training. A more effective way to ensure that employees understand the hazards and the desired work practices, including the use of proper PPE, is to provide training that gives workers the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency and ask questions. Let workers demonstrate that they understand how the harness should fit, how to inspect it, where the correct anchor points are located, and how to select the correct lanyard. Hands on activities create a more dynamic and effective training session.

The final elements to consider are the decisions that workers make, either consciously or not the job every day. On the same project I mentioned above, I was speaking to an ironworker new to the industry. He was proud of the fact that in his new job he was getting fit, and had lost almost 20 pounds in the preceding six months. As he was talking to me I noticed that his harness was fitting him loosely; his weight loss had clearly resulted in the original equipment he was issued becoming too large for him. When I asked him about it he seemed surprised, and said that he automatically puts on his PPE when he gets to work every day, out of habit. He hadn’t thought about the significance of his physical changes and how they affected the fit of his PPE, and no one else had noticed it either. The fact that the changes occurred incrementally over a period of time made them easier to miss. Safety professionals talk a lot about the power of habit, and making safety on the jobsite a habit – like putting on a seatbelt when we get into a vehicle. There are times however that habit can become so automatic that it is no longer intentional, and in these cases things like the fit of a harness can be missed. Engaging workers in the discussion and emphasizing the practice of looking out for each other on the project is one step to help with this challenge. Human behavior research has shown that we are more likely to notice someone else making a mistake than to be aware of our own mistakes.

The bottom line is that an engaged workforce is going to be safer at work. A workforce that is involved in the planning discussions, participating in the training activities, and looking out for each other will be a more engaged workforce.

Trish Ennis, CSP, ARM, CRIS
Trish is a Certified Safety Professional with experience in risk management and safety consulting in construction, hospitality, multi-family, restaurant, cultural and non-profit organizations, healthcare, and insurance. Her career prior to joining Colorado Safety Association includes 20 years in the insurance and risk management industry, work at the Denver Zoo as the Director of Workplace Safety, and several years in the construction industry as a safety manager. Ennis is an active volunteer leader with the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), where she serves on numerous committees, and is a Trustee on the ASSP Foundation Board of Trustees. She served as the 100th ASSP President from July 2014 – June 2015.

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