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Falling Safely


Falls from heights are a common danger in many sectors. As such, fall-arrest equipment has become mandatory for many professions involving work at heights of three metres or more.

But even the best fall protection in the world may not save a worker who has not received proper training on how to use and wear the equipment. Fall-protection education has grown as an industry, as employers hire both workplace-safety training firms and equipment suppliers throughout North America to educate workers. TEAM-1 Academy Inc. in Oakville, Ontario is one company that specializes in providing government-approved, fall-protection training to employers.

“We are able to teach the people how to work there safely with their PPE,” explains TEAM-1 chief of training Scott Connor. He advises employers to put in place a prepared rescue plan, which should include education on what kind of equipment is acceptable for rescue and making sure that workers can execute the plan.

Chris Irwin, global training instructor with MSA in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, begins his courses by teaching about the regulations in the state or province before moving on to what kind of equipment is right for the trainees’ application. “My background is health and safety management, so a lot of people that I get in class are health and safety managers, or they are the types of workers that work for a health and safety manager, and so I try to gear it to their needs,” he says.

Proper fall-protection training is essential for everyone who works at heights, says Claudio Dente, president of Dentec Safety Specialists Inc. in Newmarket, Ontario. Workers who do not receive proper fall-arrest training make mistakes that can exacerbate the dangers, such as donning gear improperly or failing to take clearance into account. “Many people still don’t fit-test a harness when they put it on,” Dente adds.

As well, workers need to ensure they have enough clearance between themselves and the ground if they do fall with a harness or lifeline. “People don’t take those measurements, calculations, properly or seriously,” Dente notes. “So they can put themselves in a position where they are wearing a harness, but when they fall and the harness and the lanyard start to pay out, they hit the ground while they are still moving.”

Irwin observes that some workers wear harnesses or lanyards too loosely, which can create other risks. “If they were to fall, they would take fall forces in lots of different places where their body can’t handle them,” he cautions. Connecting a lanyard to one’s feet can cause dangerously high fall forces too, as can wearing incorrectly sized equipment.

“We always tell our clients, ‘Even though you have fall-arrest gear on, you never want to fall, because there is still a chance you are going to bang into something on the way down,’” Connor says. “There may be some obstructions on your way towards getting arrested in the fall.”

Employers should plan to invest in training before they even buy fall-protection equipment, according to Andrea Martin, fall-protection sales specialist with 3M Canada in southwest Ontario. “Training shows the workers how to properly care for their equipment, how to work and identify hazards, understanding the fall clearances and the importance of having a rescue plan.”

Martin says a rescue plan is especially important, since a worker should not have to hang suspended in a harness all day after falling. “That is the one part that everybody forgets,” she points out. “When somebody falls, how do we rescue them?”

Don Hoddinott, director of business development with YOW Canada Inc. in Ottawa, notes that formal safety training does not necessarily refer to classroom training these days. “Online training is becoming more and more the standard,” he says. “That said, when it comes to fall-arrest gear, there is a fundamental requirement for trainees to exercise their ability to inspect, wear and use fall-protection equipment.”

YOW has been teaching workers about fall-protection training and on-the-job safety for more than eight years. Hoddinott hopes that other provinces will follow the footsteps of Ontario and Newfoundland in making fall-protection training mandatory, although that could complicate things for migrant workers who travel across provincial borders for work.

“The worker might need Working at Heights training that is compliant with both provincial legislations,” Hoddinott suggests. “This often means the trainees require two different training programs to be allowed access to both worksites.”

According to Connor, it has not always been easy to persuade certain types of workers to wear fall-protection gear. But times have changed, and more workers have come to accept the realities of falling dangers in certain professions, especially when personal experience comes into play. “Enough of them have known someone, or someone in their family, [who] has died,” Connor notes. “It is becoming more the culture now.”

Jeff Cottrill is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Health & Safety News.