OHS Canada Magazine

Avoiding the Fall

March 2, 2015

By Jason Contant

Fall protection is a must when working at heights of 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, a product-group manager at 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, a safety consultant and former president of New Heights Industries Inc. in Winnipeg.

He says the best defence against fall-related 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; and
  • Where it is not feasible to eliminate the hazard, use a travel-restraint, fall-restrict 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 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

Harness adjustability and comfort are major considerations and ongoing issues for end-users, suggests Stephen Pike, owner and training specialist 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?”

Pike suggests that things certainly have changed from 15 years 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.

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.

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.

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 in Sudbury, Ontario 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.

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.

Self-retracting lanyards (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.
  • 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.

In 2009, Capital Safety introduced an SRL that allows the worker to select either the traditional “fall arrest” mode or a “rescue/descent” mode. 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

“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 the former editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.

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