OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

Avoiding the Fall


One need only look back to last Christmas Eve in Toronto for a grisly example of why proper fall protection is so very important. It was the afternoon of December 24, 2009 when a swing stage separated in the middle, sending five construction workers plummeting 13 storeys. Four workers died on scene, while a fifth survived, albeit with life-altering injuries.

The incident has spurred criminal negligence charges and 61 counts under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, many squarely addressing fall protection requirements. It also served as the catalyst for a safety blitz involving construction sites across the province.

In most provinces, fall protection is a must when working at heights of approximately three metres or more. In its simplest form, a fall protection system consists of a full-body harness, a connecting device, such as a shock-absorbing lanyard or self-retracting lifeline, and an anchorage connector, says Bob Apel, fall protection business manager for North America at Mine Safety Appliances Company (MSA) in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.

The market offers buyers plenty of options to suit work-specific needs, including rope grabs, positioning and restraint lanyards, horizontal and vertical lifelines, and temporary and permanent anchorage connectors, just to name a few.

With all of these choices, it is best to begin with a multifaceted fall hazard assessment, suggests John Fuke, technical services manager for Canada with Capital Safety Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario. That review takes into account the frequency and severity of the hazard, as well as the type of fall that may occur, Fuke says.

A managed fall protection program includes hazard assessment, work methods, purchasing, training, maintenance and inspection, advises Wayne Donnelly, president of New Heights Industries Inc. in Winnipeg.

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) in Mississauga, Ontario is revising its Z259.17 standard to provide a comprehensive tool for the selection, use and application of fall protection equipment and systems, says Donnelly, who also sits on the agency’s technical committee for fall protection. (The draft standard is expected to be released sometime next year, “barring any unforeseen circumstances.”)

Donnelly notes that “regulatory authority acceptance and inclusion of this standard in each and every regulatory jurisdiction will ultimately lead to harmonization of overall fall protection equipment selection and use nation-wide.”

He says he is of the view that the best defence against fallrelated hazards on the job is as follows:

– Eliminate the hazard through engineering (process design), or minimize exposure through the use of administrative controls, work practices and procedures.
– Prevent employee exposure to the hazard through the construction of passive fall protection systems such as barriers and guardrails, and also active systems, including travel restraint systems.
– Where it is not feasible to eliminate the hazard, use a travel restraint, fall-restrict system or fall arrest system (in descending order of preference).

Fuke says his preference is to “engineer out” any fall hazard, as is the case with new light standards on the 400-series highways in Ontario. “No longer do you need to go up in a cherry picker. No longer do you need to climb,” he says. Rather, the light fixture is lowered down the pole, the bulbs replaced and the unit returned to its original position.

“You’ve eliminated the fall completely,” says Fuke. Unfortunately, engineering out a fall hazard is not a workable option in every environment. Fuke points to an automotive plant that has a hole in the floor to allow machinery to be lowered to another level, thereby creating a temporary fall hazard. “The guys still have to work on the line around that, so how do you mitigate risk?” he asks.

NICE AND COMFY

MSA offers a new harness equipped with an adjustable Y Back D-Locator Pad, a feature that allows complete adjustment of the back D-ring to provide proper harness fit. Designed to provide increased comfort, easy adjustment and tangle-resistance, the harness is well-suited for controlled descent, positioning, ladder climbing, rescue and fall arrest, notes a product release from the company.

Harness adjustability and comfort are major considerations and ongoing issues for end-users, suggests Stephen Pike, owner and training director of HIGHTEK Fall Protection in St. John’s. “If you buy the wrong harness, you’ll get a very low level of user acceptance,” Pike says. “They’ll be reluctant to put it on. They’ll be reluctant to adjust it properly.”

Fuke recommends matching equipment to the environment and task first, rather than using personal preference as the basis for selection. But if users “choose not to select the harness you’ve recommended, move on,” he says. “Give them one they will wear.”

With comfort playing a role in user acceptance, Fuke says that more consumers are demanding customization. “How can I look better or different than the other guy?”

Norguard Industries Inc. in Sudbury, Ontario offers harnesses and lanyards specifically designed for women that include modifications to accommodate body structure, and are available in an exclusive shade of pink.

Pike suggests that things certainly have changed from a decade ago, when manufacturers were offering much cheaper harness products. There are now a lot more manufacturers who are “putting out harnesses that have [many more] features, much more comfortable to wear, much more luxurious,” he says. In some cases, that is fuelling “greater worker acceptance” and worker comfort, especially for issues like rescue and lanyard parking points (see “Double Double” on page 48).

MATERIAL OF CHOICE

The choice of a harness depends largely on the environment where it will be used. Pike says that many harnesses are made from nylon or polyester, both of which have their own particular sensibilities in chemical environments.

Joanne Musico, corporate director of sales and marketing for Norguard Industries, says harnesses made with nylon and polyester webbing can be used in temperatures as high as 94 degrees Celsius. Nylon webbing is also strong, lightweight, flexible and highly resistant to alkali substances, but should not be exposed to acidic conditions.

Polyester, on the other hand, offers less stretch but greater protection in acidic environments, she says.

MSA’s Apel adds that polyester is generally considered a better multi-purpose material. Exceptions include applications involving arc flash and electricity, says Fuke, noting that nylon is the clear winner.

For environments where welding and other hot work is being performed, Apel says there are specifically designed materials, such as Kevlar.

Musico says her company recently launched a product line to address these hazards in, among others, mining, petrochemical, utility, water treatment, construction, painting and food processing settings. The product is 95 per cent washable with liquid soap and water, provides good resistance to a variety of chemicals, high resistance to cuts, mildew and welding splatter, and has dielectric properties, she adds.

A LONG LIFE

The service life of a full-body harness depends on application, frequency of use and the severity of workplace conditions. Still, Norguard Industries offers some estimates: eight to 10 years for a harness that has never been used; as long as eight years for a product that is infrequently used (say, twice a year); up to seven years for gear that is used only occasionally (once a month); as much as six years for a product that is used regularly (several times a month); and about four to five years for a harness that is used almost daily.

Harnesses are lasting longer than ever before, thanks in part to the recent innovation of polyurethane coating being applied to webbing. Designed to help resist dirt, grease, oil and other products, Apel reports that the coating makes cleaning the webbing easier. The new line from Norguard Industries makes use of the coating. As an example of its performance, Musico cites painters who get paint splattered on the webbing, something that could affect product integrity. With the protective coating, “they can wipe it right off.”

STAY OR GO

But necessary protection goes beyond the surface. If a danger exists, the objective is to avoid harm, but also to prevent additional damage if a fall does occur.

For self-retracting lanyards (SRLs), the CSA offers guidance in its Z259.2.2 “Self-Retracting Devices for Personal Fall-Arrest Systems” document. Musico says SRLs fall into three types:

Type 1 — The working length is no more than three metres. The locking mechanism of the compact and lightweight device is not capable of absorbing significant amounts of energy. If subjected to the force of a fall, the lanyard must be retired from service.

Type 2 — The lanyard is generally more than three metres long and has an internal energy-absorbing mechanism that, along with a brake, works to minimize impact forces. “It also has a visible load indicator located on the swivelling snap hook. A visual red mark will pop open should an impact fall force occur,” she says.

Type 3 — This variety of harness is the same as Type 2, but is equipped with a device that allows a single attendant to raise or lower the worker to a safe level.

A “regular” energy-absorbing lanyard features a shock absorber to dissipate kinetic energy and limit deceleration forces during a fall, Fuke says. These offer several distinct advantages and disadvantages compared with SRLs, he says.

On the positive side, an SRL connected to an anchor point allows for greater up-and-down mobility (usually 15 degrees in each direction), generally involves a shorter fall distance, (since most of these units lock in at 60 centimetres or less), and is more robust and lasts longer than a regular lanyard.

To the negative, certain SRLs must be recertified annually, are much more expensive and are not as lightweight as shock-absorbing lanyards.

When comparing an SRL to a regular lanyard, Musico says that “if your distance from your anchorage point and where you are working is a short distance, people generally tend to use their own personal lanyards with energy absorber. If you are working a longer distance away, the retractable [type] is recommended [so that] you are not tripping over it.”

Fuke reports there are now even “self-rescue” SRLs, so that workers can lower themselves to the ground instead of waiting for the help of emergency personnel.

Last year, Capital Safety introduced an SRL that allows the worker to select either the traditional “fall arrest” mode or a “rescue/descent” mode, notes a company statement. If a fall occurs while in rescue/descent mode, the lifeline arrests the fall and lowers the worker safely to the ground or the next level, a feature well-suited for those working alone, or if the next level below is within 15 metres.

The fall arrest mode is meant more for working over dangerous objects, such as moving machinery or traffic, or if the next level below is more than 15 metres. In that mode, and if within 4.8 metres, a co-worker can switch the selector to rescue/descent mode by using a pole and assisted-rescue tool, the company adds.

INNOVATIVE APPROACH

Beyond SRLs, recent innovations in fall protection include radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies. This involves a tag being applied to or incorporated into a product for identification purposes.

RFID technology, says MSA’s Apel, allows for paperless, fast and easy tracking and inspection of products.

Harness padding is another development, this time meant to increase worker comfort by allowing air to access beneath the harness straps and prevent perspiration build-up.

“Particularly for workers who have to wear harnesses all day long,” Pike says, “you tend to find that there is chafing.”

And a few years back, in 2008, CSA Z259.10 changed the testing weight requirement for drop testing of full-body harnesses from 100 to 160 kilograms, says Donnelly. That amount takes into account the total weight of the user, clothing, tools and other equipment.

“The average North American industrial worker has gained [nine kilograms] in the last 10 years,” Pike says, pointing out that energy absorbers are now being designed for heavier employees.

The CSA has about a dozen fall protection standards — including those related to horizontal lifelines, energy absorbers and lanyards, and design of active fall protection systems — but the agency is expected to soon release its first-ever standard on anchorage connectors, Pike says.

Still, some concerns persist. “Probably the biggest problem we see in the field is [when] the purchasing of critical devices, such as full-body harnesses, is left to somebody who has never worn a harness before,” Pike contends. “I have seen cases in which hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear has been bought and it has been essentially useless.”

He says that purchase choices should be made in close consultation with the workers who will be required to wear the gear to avoid any disconnect between the equipment selected and the needs it is meant to fulfill.

“The answers already exist within the organization. They just need to go to the right people and ask the right questions,” Pike suggests.

Jason Contant is editor of canadian occupational health & safety news.

Sidebars
Double double

Work tasks such as ladder climbing or moving from point A to B on a scaffold may demand use of a double lanyard. The device, consisting of a single energy absorber with two “legs” on the lanyard, is designed to maintain 100 per cent tie-off, meaning a user is always connected with at least one leg of the lanyard.

John Fuke, technical services manager for Canada at Capital Safety Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario, recommends that workers tie off high on the harness, not near their hips. “That way, if [the lanyard leg] breaks away, the unit deploys. It’s not going to hang you sideways,” Fuke says.

Stephen Pike, owner and training director of HIGHTEK Fall Protection in St. John’s, cautions that in the event of a fall, the results could be catastrophic if one leg is attached to a structure and the other to a chest strap or D-ring that does not break away. “We’ve seen cases where workers have gotten very serious injuries,” Pike says.

However, he notes that many manufacturers are building points into the harnesses or that can be retrofitted onto existing harnesses. This allows a user to “park” the legs of a lanyard.

If the worker happens to fall, the other leg, or parking point, is designed “to break away and allow the energy absorber to behave properly,” Pike explains.