For people who work at heights, falls are a common cause of both injuries and fatalities — not only in the construction industry, but also in industrial workplaces, transportation and many other sectors.
According to statistics from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada, more than 42,000 work injuries from falls occur across the country every year. This number accounts for about 17 per cent of time-loss injuries accepted by Canadian workers’ compensation boards; more than a third of those are falls from heights.
Certainly, laws are in place to penalize unsafe practices that could lead to falls, and fall-protection equipment is mandatory in most provinces for those who work at heights of three metres or more. As numerous safety companies offer fall-protection equipment, there are a wide variety of products in the field.
Fall-protection products are commonly classified under four basic categories of A, B, C and D — the first three of which together comprise a system designed for maximum protection:
— A: Anchorage connectors, which anchor workers to surfaces at heights by connecting them to tie-off points, such as scaffold beams;
— B: Body wear or body-support devices, which consist of personal protective equipment that workers wear on or around their bodies, particularly full-body harnesses;
— C: Connecting devices, such as shock-absorbing lanyards and self-retracting lifelines, which link B to A; and
— D: Descent-and-rescue products, including automatic and manual descenders, rope-access products and industrial-grade descenders.
“When you’re making your decision on what fall-protection equipment that you should buy, you really should enlist the assistance of a fall-protection professional to make sure that you’re using the correct gear for the correct job,” suggests Barry White, the Mississauga-based safety sales specialist for southern Ontario with 3M Canada. “You want to make sure that you have the correct anchorage connectors that will work with those anchor points properly. And you want to make sure that you have the correct connecting device.”
For example, a shock-absorbing lanyard may be appropriate for a certain task, “but if clearance is a bit of an issue, where perhaps you don’t have the required clearances for a shock-absorbing lanyard, you have to look at a self-retracting lifeline, which has a shorter clearance requirement,” adds White. Full-body harnesses should be fully adjustable and fit the worker properly, he says, with the appropriate connecting points for the job.
It is the employer’s responsibility to understand what their employees are working with. Prospective buyers should measure the value of a system according to what is required. Some of the criteria to consider include the work itself, how critical it is to finish the task and the length of time it takes to do so. It is also important to assess whether the job involves unique, additional hazards apart from height, says Marc Harkins, product group manager of fall protection with MSA Safety in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.
“If I am doing something in general industry or basic construction, at that point, I can go with a product that is probably made of nylon or polyester,” Harkins says. But for employees who work up in a bucket truck or on utility lines, an ASTM-rated product will be required.
In other words, a job that carries the risk of arc flashes requires fall-arrest gear that is fire-retardant. Similarly, a welding job at a height may require fall-protection gear made of Kevlar or Nomex material to protect workers — and the gear itself — from weld splatter.
MSA’s fall-protection line has separate categories tailored to suit different jobs and hazard levels. Its “workman” or economy line offers basic, no-frills fall protection, while its mid-grade inventory incorporates several features like comfort padding or buckles to the basic functions.
The company’s highest-end line includes products designed for workers who need fall protection on a full-time basis. These products blend compliance with comfort, featuring non-binding shoulder pads, squared-off leg straps, varying buckle options and material offering protection from flashes or weld splatter.
Harkins cites other factors that need to be considered when choosing fall-protection products. They include assessing whether the worker is alone or in a group, if the worker is moving vertically or horizontally, how far he or she is from the anchorage point, if the anchorage point is a ceiling far above and whether drilling or welding is involved. “Those are all the different kind of things that we all enquire about,” he says.
Safe, not sorry
The costs of such protective equipment vary widely. Prices can range anywhere from $20 for a simple harness up to $5,000 for a more elaborate rescue system. But price should not be the sole deciding factor. When you consider the fines and lawsuits that happen when workers are injured, the price for fall-protection equipment seems very low, and most employers do not haggle over cost if they can get effective, simple solutions in place.
But there are other ways that prospective buyers may choose a product for the wrong reasons, such as when an employer does not ask enough questions or the right ones. “It can be overwhelming if you are not really in tune with the latest standards or the latest updates,” Harkins notes. “If I am buying a nylon harness when I am welding, there is a good chance that if I am not inspecting it as regularly as I should, that it could put worker safety at risk.”
It can also lead to a situation in which one replaces a harness more often than one would with a more expensive type of harness, which could end up costing even more. “Not every worker on that site may need the same product; maybe they are different,” Harkins adds.
Even the best fall-arrest gear in the world will not help a worker unless he or she knows how to use it properly. That is why fall-protection training has become an important requirement in recent years; in April 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Labour implemented a mandatory training requirement for construction employees who work at heights.
“That’s a real deficiency in anybody’s fall-protection program,” says White about lack of training. “Guys are under the impression that they can just pull out a harness and throw it on and away they go. So we’re really pushing to make sure that everybody gets appropriate training for their applications.”
3M Canada owns a nationwide training arm called Fall Protection Group, which provides fall-protection education at world-class training centres in Alberta and Mississauga. “We do training in all aspects of fall protection,” explains White. “We can do the courses at our facilities or onsite, whatever works best for the customer.”
White also stresses the importance of having a fall-rescue plan in place. “You want to make sure that you have a means of rescue and not depending on 9-1-1 to do your rescue for you.”
Tender loving care
Regular inspections of fall-protection equipment are a must, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario. Before use, a worker should inspect the entire surface of the webbing for possible damage. The best way to do that is to bend the webbing into an upside-down “U”, hold the body about 15 to 20 centimetres from one’s face and look for frayed edges, broken fibres, pulled stitches, chemical spills or any other damage. Buckles should also be inspected in case of loose, distorted or broken grommets, including sharp edges or loose, pitted or cracked rivets, information from the Centre’s website notes.
Employers should inspect their equipment on both a per-use and an annual basis. Before one puts on fall-protection equipment, a visual inspection is essential. Every year, a qualified person should inspect all fall-protection equipment. The annual check would take factors like extreme temperatures, dust, debris and regular wear and tear into account.
In addition, employers must be mindful of substances that will likely come into contact with the gear. Water and moisture can affect fall protection, while chemicals and oil can have a deadly effect on how it works.
Take no chances
As with any other equipment or tools on a worksite, fall-protection equipment can succumb to ordinary wear and tear. And that is why constant inspection is vital. Certain types of equipment, particularly those with a self-retracting lifeline, may expire after one fall. An engineer or other type of certified professional has to inspect the system and confirm whether the buckles, cables or lifelines are good for reuse or whether the employer needs to replace the equipment.
Despite some notable technological improvements added to certain brands, the types of fall-protection equipment currently available have hardly changed over the last two decades. Appearances may have changed, but the technology has not.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.