Fall-protection equipment is essential for many professions in which people work at dangerous heights. These jobs include construction, utilities, roofing, many industrial jobs and more. Despite a wide variety of fall-protection equipment available – including body harnesses, self-retracting lifelines and descent-and-rescue devices for lone workers – and no shortage of companies across North America selling the equipment, thousands of Canadian workers still injure themselves from falls every year.
In the meantime, there are always reports of employers being charged and fined when workers are doing their jobs at heights without the proper fall-arrest equipment. One recent example: in January, two directors of a Brampton, Ontario furniture retailer each received a prison sentence of 25 days, while the company was fined $250,000, after the death of a warehouse worker who had not been wearing fall-protection gear.
So why do some employees live dangerously when working at heights? Sometimes, the reason is inadequate training, suggests Chuck Roberts, business-development supervisor for fall protection with the personal-safety division of 3M Canada in London, Ontario.
“Right now, there’s a massive mix of training, whether it’s a videocassette tape that people put in and say, ‘Hey, here’s your fall-protection training,’ or it’s a 16-hour class where people are putting their equipment on and totally understanding how this equipment works,” Roberts says. “If it’s just taught in the classroom and left in the classroom, and it’s not being enforced or maintained in the field,” he adds, “we’re still going to have issues with people using the product incorrectly and ultimately suffering injuries.”
Other times, workers have been trained in fall-protection gear, but just do not bother with it, according to Marc Harkins, product-group manager for fall protection with MSA Safety in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. “A lot of people say, ‘Nah, it’s not going to happen to me. I’m not gonna fall. I’m just gonna do this particular activity real quick,’” Harkins says. “That’s usually when it happens. It’s the transition time, when you’re doing something real quick, when you’re not really thinking of it.”
“The common perception out there is, ‘It’s never gonna happen to me,’ and I think the workers that we deal with are kind of the alpha males out there, where they don’t want to be strapped into this safety gear, and it’s kind of an ego type of thing,” Roberts points out. “You’ll drive by job sites and see these guys up there wearing harnesses, but they’re not tied into anything.”
In addition, Roberts speculates, some employers and workers may perceive that fall-protection equipment interferes with productivity – and, ironically, with safety.
“These pieces of equipment are designed to save you in the event of a fall, but it also might make your job a little bit longer,” he explains. “As you’re laying lines across the roof, it becomes more of a trip hazard than it does safety equipment, so productivity could take a hit.” But worker safety should always remain the top priority of any dangerous job, Roberts adds. “If it’s going to take you an hour and a half instead of an hour to do it,” he says, “the workers have just got to accept that.”
Harkins agrees. “Depending on the application, a lot of workers believe that fall protection actually slows down their progress,” he notes. “If I’m on a rooftop somewhere and I’m moving from point A to point B, I can’t just walk over there anymore. I have to make sure my anchor point’s connected, I’m going from one section to another, and there are a couple of extra steps that are involved.
“But once you get used to it, it’s just second nature,” Harkins continues. “It’s that transition of getting used to it. And that’s where a lot of people don’t want to do it.”
Comfort is another factor that may discourage equipment use, Harkins adds. “Some people say it’s uncomfortable,” he says, elaborating that comfort and slowdown of productivity are the two most common excuses that his company hears.
Many manufacturers of fall-protection gear are tackling the comfort issue by making the equipment lighter, Roberts says. “Things are getting lighter,” he says, “a little bit simpler to use.” Lighter harnesses and other products, he adds, “allow the worker to move more freely when strapped into a fall-protection system.”
Another innovation that Roberts mentions is fall-arrest equipment that allows workers to rescue themselves independently. “In the past, the individual worker would fall and ultimately be suspended in air waiting for a trained professional to come and perform a rescue. So that’s definitely changed in the industry,” he notes, “more products to allow for the individual to ultimately rescue themselves or for not-highly-trained individuals to perform rescue.” 3M’s Personal Rescue Device, which has a release cord that lets a dangling worker lower himself or herself to the ground slowly, is a prime example.
In December, the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced that the province would adopt a new training standard for working at heights in the construction sector – including training for proper use of fall-arrest gear. The new Working at Heights Training Program Standard goes into effect on April 1.
Roberts is optimistic that the new standard will help. “It’s definitely a need for the Ontario workforce,” he says. “Setting a certain standard or regulation on the quality of training is obviously a bonus.” At the same time, he cautions, improved training will be effective only if it goes beyond instruction. “Are those workers taking what they’ve learned in a classroom setting and tying it to their everyday workplace? If they’re doing that and it’s being properly enforced and taught in the field, then yes, we should see some decreases on the statistics.”
Harkins also believes the standard would lower the rate of workplace fall injuries – as long as it is a mandatory requirement. “If it’s voluntary, then only the companies or individuals who want to take that next step and go to that next level will participate,” he says. If it’s mandatory, “it’ll drive behaviour.”
Fall injuries and deaths are an issue not just for the workers who suffer them; they also have high consequences for the managers, fellow workers and companies. That is why fall protection is important for everyone to understand and enforce. “If somebody falls, it affects everybody in a negative way,” says Harkins.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.