As many safety officers will know, working at heights is one of the most hazardous activities that workers can engage in. Falls are a major cause of injury and death in Canadian workplaces. Even falling from two or three metres up can have fatal consequences.
This is why it is essential for organizations who engage in these types to activities to understand the importance and intricacies of fall protection PPE and training.
And this is essential, because working at heights is so dangerous, and using the right equipment can make a different between life and death – or serious injury.
“According to regulatory provisions set forward by government agencies that are responsible for worker health and safety, fall protection is something that is a requirement to be provided by employers when they have their employees working at heights, where there is a possibility of falling to a different level,” says Michel Goulet, Professional Division Sales Manager, Petzl America.
Generally speaking this covers anywhere from 4 to 10 feet depending on the industry you’re working in.
Fall protection refers to any type of planning system to prevent or minimize falls at heights, explains John Evinger, Safety Specialist, Grainger Canada.
Anybody working at heights needs some kind of fall protection equipment, Evinger cites construction as being specifically high risk:
“They’re probably at the top of the list for injuries and fatalities,” says Evinger.Indeed, construction workers are often faced with the edge of a building, or around holes.
In the construction industry, many worksite injuries are related to falls. Even short falls can be fatal, says Goulet.
“The employer is responsible to make sure that [workers] are well equipped and trained to handle what can happen on the worksite,” says Goulet.
Workers in oil and gas, energy – working on wind farms for example – or communications (who may be climbing cell towers) are also at high risk.
And it’s not just wind power too, solar power can be dangerous as panels are installed on commercial buildings and private homes where there are sometimes very steep rooves.
In general industry such as pulp and paper mills or any big manufacturing plants, it’s very often that workers need to access equipment that is off the floor, says Goulet.
Sometimes a worker is required to wear fall protection because they’re working over moving equipment because if they come into contact with moving equipment that might be very dangerous.
Fall protection PPE
“There are many forms of fall protection but it’s essentially a system that can prevent you from moving to an area where you may be at risk of falling, stop you from falling and arrest – or decelerate – your fall,” says Goulet.
PPE is based on the type of fall protection or fall arrest that you’re putting in place. So this would be equipment such as barriers, handrails, guardrails, open surface protection, etc.
Next on the list is systems and controls with procedures such as warning barriers and control zones on a roof, says Evinger.
And then, of course, we get into fall or travel restraint systems.
“These systems are there to prevent a worker from falling from a work position, or from traveling to an unguarded edge from which a worker could fall,” says Evinger.
There are also fall containment systems such safety nets.
Lastly, the most common type of protection – or at least the protection that is most though of when referring to fall protection – is fall arrest systems, such as harnesses or lanyards as well as lifelines and anchor points. These all function together.
There are different harnesses available – most have a dorsal point – whenever you’re using positioning and fall arrest you should anchored to your D ring. If you have to free your hands while working at heights, some harnesses will have D rings on the side of the harnesses – and some will even have D rings on the shoulder which will allow them to be raised or lowered into confined spaces (suspension D rings are used by building maintenance and cleaning crews for example).
In fact, in some jurisdictions workers are allowed to attach their harness to their sternum area (which they can then connect to a cable or rail).
As well as a harness, workers may need a helmet, face shield, etc.
A lanyard is also a key part of a fall protection system.
If there is a fall risk, a worker will need a shock absorbing lanyard that can adjustable.
A Y lanyard allows the users to stay connected to a structure (this type of two-legged lanyard is used in many different industries).
Retractable fall arrest lanyards (such as belts or cables) use a spring-loaded bobbin so should the user fall there is a locking mechanism in place.
Goulet says that if the worker is going to be moving along a location they will still to have a back up vertical lifeline that can be used, for example, on a swing stage.
Evinger says that as well as equipment, one of the most important aspects of fall protection is knowledge training and the ability to assess the situation:
“Without the knowledge, training and ability to assess the situation, it makes it difficult to put [into place] the proper protection that you need, with a thorough understanding of how it’s going to protect you,” says Evinger.
In Canada, training depends on each province.
Some provinces have it legislating in a certification which is required through an authorized provider (such as in Ontario). Generally for an introductory course this is an eight hour course which will cover general legislation, application, laws, etc. All that the user needs to know regarding how to set up for traction, identify hazards and concerns and be able to apply the controls on those assessments.
Evinger says that at Grainger they partner with customers on injury prevention, and support their customers on their goal of keeping their employees while also reducing loss and cost.
“We can train our customers, we can provide support assessments for our customers, and educate them the best we can to keep [workers] from falling,” says Evinger.
Evinger stresses that education and training is key – and not just training, but good training.
“I’ve been in safety for 20 years and I’ve seen the worst of the worst […] and it’s all because employers are not taking their responsibilities seriously and training these employees,” says Evinger. “So it’s important for you to not only train the employees but also owners and management of the companies.”
Maintenance and rescue
Goulet says that fall protection is one of the areas where more work needs to be done, both in terms of educating but also knowing how to use the equipment.
Sometimes workers can’t find appropriate anchor points and so they won’t wear their harness properly.
Maintenance and equipment inspection is equally important.
Goulet says that in all provincial regulations that he has seen there should be an inspection at least once a year – but that doesn’t mean that an employer can’t do an inspection once a month should they choose. In addition, the person who is going to use the equipment needs to inspect it.
Broadly though, he says that “there needs to be a proper inspection by a competent person at least once a year.”
All companies that have employees working at heights need to have a written fall protection program in place, which includes a rescue plan.
“Fall protection is not complete without a proper rescue plan,” says Goulet. “It’s not enough to train, you also have to train your groups to rescue.”