There are two approaches to a workplace fall protection program: reactive and proactive. Both can help prevent injury and death, though in different ways. However, some companies approach fall protection more reactively than proactively.
This is not to say that these companies refuse to be more proactive; figuring out the best safety proactive strategy, however, may be difficult in some ways.
Falls are a common occurrence in a variety of workplaces and work sites. The construction industry in particular lists falls as the most common cause of death among workers. These injuries and deaths, however, are preventable. This is why proper and effective fall protection is vital in the workplace.
What is a Fall Protection Program?
Proactive fall protection is helpful in efficiently reducing the number of falls that occur in the workplace. While proactive and reactive approaches to fall protection can work together to mitigate workplace hazards, employers need to focus on crafting and implementing a strategic and proactive fall protection program.
According to OSHA fall protection program requirements, employers have to provide fall protection for their employees. The guidelines in OSHA standard 1926.501 lay out the specific measures that need to be implemented to keep employees safe from fall hazards. OSHA standard 1926.502, meanwhile, lays out the criteria that fall protection systems need to meet.
The Reactive Approach to Fall Protection
Reactive fall protection involves the implementation of strategies that seek to prevent injury or death should a fall occur. These strategies include the use of equipment such as harnesses and lanyards.
Harnesses and lanyards can protect workers from injury, but they do not themselves prevent falls. Thus, they are a reactive measure and are effectively utilized in the actual event of a fall.
Technically, the reactive approach to fall protection is not ineffective and should not be ignored. Harnesses and lanyards are still helpful and should be provided by the employer. However, it’s also important to design and implement measures that will be able to help prevent falls from occurring in the first place.
An effective and strategic fall protection program can help prevent falls, eliminate hazards that can cause falls, and ensure that those who do fall are protected against injury and death.
The Proactive Approach to Fall Protection
While the reactive approach helps prevent injury and death in case a fall occurs, the proactive approach aims to prevent falls from happening altogether. To be proactive in preventing falls, employers will have to actively seek out and identify hazards that can lead to falls.
When employers make sure to keep an eye out for any conditions or situations that are potentially unsafe, they can drastically reduce falls and other incidents in the workplace.
Because fall prevention is the essence of a proactive approach to safety, it will take more work to design and implement a program that will sufficiently protect employees. This program will also have to effectively incorporate both reactive and proactive approaches, thus preventing falls while also providing a safety net should a fall occur.
There are various things that employers can do to design and implement an effective program for fall protection and prevention. It’s important to note that there is no single fall protection program template; different workplaces with different characteristics will of course have different fall protection needs.
Thus, employers need to tailor a program to their workplaces’ unique needs and features. However, the UAW Health and Safety Department suggests a basic eight-step approach that employers can adapt to their own needs:
- Determine if walking and working surfaces are structurally sound.
- Assess fall hazards.
- Reduce or eliminate exposure to fall hazards if possible.
- Determine the most suitable type of fall protection system.
- Establish procedures for rescue and/or retrieval.
- Establish programs for the proper storage, inspection, and maintenance of equipment.
- Ensure that employees receive fall protection training.
- Monitor the effectiveness of fall protection programs.
Identifying Fall Hazards in the Workplace
The guidelines in OSHA standard 1926.501 help lay out the different ways to eliminate fall hazards. However, employers first need to identify all fall hazards in the workplace to make sure that they can all be eliminated.
What is a fall hazard? Anything or any situation in the workplace that can cause an accidental loss of balance or anything that can lead to a fall. Here are some examples:
If an employee has to work on an elevation that’s 6 feet or more above the ground, they will have to have fall protection. This protection includes the use of personal fall arrest systems as well as guardrails.
Exterior Construction Areas
Even a fall from a short distance can still cause serious injuries, and therefore should be taken into account when identifying hazards. Employees should also ensure that their workers are protected against falling on sharp objects. Open excavations should also be guarded in some way.
Scaffolds must be secure and properly constructed. They must also have properly guardrails, particularly the ones that are over 6 feet tall. Additionally, they must have safe access ladders as well as proper base plates and mudsills. Employees must also remember to only work on properly constructed scaffolds with reliable support structures.
A stairway should have a rail along unprotected sides. If a stairway is flanked on both sides by walls, it should have at least one handrail. Employees should also avoid using incomplete or unsafe stairs.
It’s important to keep ladders well-maintained and kept in a safe area. Because ladders vary in height, employees must use the right ladder for a specific job. Ladders should only be used on stable and level ground.
Careful angling will prevent potential fall hazards. Employees must also avoid straddling, standing, or sitting on the very top of a ladder.
Fall Hazard Control Hierarchy
Fall hazard control strategies vary in effectiveness. However, executing the more effective strategies is not always possible. Thus, companies will have to resort to less effective strategies, though they should only do so if it has been determined that other strategies are not possible or feasible.
Elimination or Substitution
The elimination of hazards is the best and most effective defense against falls. It is not always easy and likely requires careful strategizing. Eliminating hazards entails reframing health and safety as intrinsic parts of the work process, as opposed to thinking of safety as something external to the process itself.
It won’t always be possible to eliminate hazards. Some jobs need to be done at a height, and the hazards are therefore unavoidable. However, in some situations, it can be possible to change the work process so that the job can be done at ground level and not at a height.
The prevention of hazards is less effective than the elimination of hazards. However, if eliminating hazards is not possible, prevention is the next best thing. Prevention entails making changes to the workplace so that employees will be protected regardless of their behavior.
Thus, if for any reason an employee happens to not be as careful as they should be, they will still be protected from falls. This strategy also does not rely on the use of personal protective equipment.
Hazard prevention, in this case, constitutes three different strategies:
- Engineering controls: the installation of lifts, stairs, guard railings, tie-offs, and the like.
- Warnings: the strategic and effective placement of warning signs in spots where employees will easily see them.
- Training and procedures: the regular conduct of safety and rescue training, as well as the regular inspection of safety equipment.
The control of hazards is the least effective strategy and should be the last line of defense against falls. It should essentially be the last resort in situations wherein the elimination and prevention of hazards are not possible.
Fall controls involve the use of equipment like harnesses, lanyards, safety nets, and the like. The goal is to reduce the risk of injury in the event of a fall, as opposed to preventing falls from occurring in the first place.
Fall Prevention Initiatives and Strategies
Fortunately, fall hazards are predictable and can therefore be prevented. Predicting the likelihood of a dangerous fall and identifying possible hazards are proactive steps toward preventing falls and keeping employees safe.
There are different ways to prevent falls and keep employees safe from all manner of injury. Thus, there is no single technique or strategy that can be pinned down as the definitive way to prevent falls in the workplace.
However, it’s important to note that different initiatives and strategies to proactively prevent falls work together to create a safe workplace. These strategies rarely, if at all, work independently of other strategies.
Here are some things that can be done to be proactive in keeping the workplace safe:
Identification and reporting of hazards
Employees should be encouraged to assist in the identification of fall hazards. This helps employers eliminate hazards or identify unsafe work conditions before an accident could occur. The identification of these hazards can also help improve existing safety programs.
Training employees is a vital part of any fall protection safety program. Employees should learn how to ensure their safety when working at heights. They should also learn how to use personal protective equipment (PPE).
Assessment of Strategies
Employers and employees will benefit from the services of a fall protection specialist who can observe how employees perform their jobs at height. The specialist will assess whether or not the fall protection strategies at play are 100% effective.
Employers and employees should often have an open dialogue about safety practices, inspections, and other strategies. As a matter of routine, employers should make sure to keep track of how many meetings, seminars, and training sessions about safety they conduct annually.
Employers should then compare this data to the number of documented fall hazards and actual accidents to have a better idea of how well current strategies are working.
Keeping the Workplace Safe
Ensuring the safety of employees takes quite a lot of continuous and ongoing work. However, an effective and well-designed fall protection program is worth all that effort. Over time, employers and employees will see and experience the benefits of proactive fall protection strategies.
Of course, a reactive approach to fall protection has value as well. Proactive and reactive strategies can and do work together to provide workers with as many safeguards against falls as possible.