By Jeff Cottrill
From construction, roofing and utilities to industrial factories and even transportation, falling from heights is a common danger in many sectors. Fall-arrest equipment, including shock-absorbing lanyards, self-retracting lifelines and full-body harnesses connected to anchors, has become mandatory for many professions involving workers 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. Last April, the Ontario Ministry of Labour adopted a new training standard for working at heights in the province’s construction sector, including training on using fall-arrest gear correctly. Newfoundland and Labrador has had a similar training requirement for a few years.
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. 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.
Hit the ground running
Proper fall-protection training is essential for everyone who works at heights. Workers who do not receive proper fall-arrest training make mistakes that can exacerbate the dangers rather than reduce them, such as donning gear improperly or failing to take clearance into account.
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.
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 London, Ontario. Citing the analogy that one does not buy a car unless one has already learned how to drive, she notes, “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.”
According to Martin, the 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?”
MSA’s comprehensive two-day training program is a long way from what fall-protection training used to be. “When I started,” Irwin recounts, “there were companies that were getting fall-protection training that would literally last maybe 15 minutes.” He believes that everyone who works at heights should undergo a minimum of four hours of training, and he is pleased that Ontario’s minimum requirement is eight hours. “I’d love to see something of the same sort here in the U.S.”
As most fall-protection gear has a life expectancy of about five years, it is critical to ensure that all components of a fall-arrest system remain in good condition. Fall-protection training often includes a requirement for workers to maintain their equipment as well as use it properly.
To ensure that fall-protection gear lasts longer and continues to work effectively, a user must inspect it for damage regularly. “If you are the end user and you take off your harness three times a day, and you put it on three times a day, you should be inspecting it, making sure that it is ready to go every single time you put it on,” Martin advises. An annual formal inspection by a qualified person is also necessary, she adds.
“We suggest storing your equipment in a cool, dry environment, where it is out of direct light and potential chemical vapours, depending on your hazards in the workplace,” Martin recommends. Capital Safety, a company recently acquired by 3M, offers a four-hour course specifically on inspection and maintenance of fall-arrest gear.
It is also worth noting that higher cost does not necessarily mean a better product. “You don’t need a lot of bells and whistles if you are going to work on a construction site, down and dirty, and you know the equipment is going to probably not last a long period of time just because it is going to be put through the ringer,” Irwin says. As such, certain employers can save costs on products with fewer features.
On the other hand, workers like tower climbers who spend a lot of time wearing harnesses need something stronger and more complex. “Some of them, they live in a harness all day long, so they are looking for something that is comfortable, something that is breathable, something that maybe has clips to attach their tools to, something that is easy to put on and take off,” Irwin continues. These workers need products with more features built into them, but are just as safe and simpler harnesses, and that can jack up the price.
New ideas, innovations
Fall-protection equipment is evolving all the time, with new innovations and improvements in worker safety hitting the market. In 2015, MSA acquired a British PPE company, Latchways, through which MSA can offer new products previously unavailable to the North American market.
One of Latchways’ specializations is what Irwin calls “engineered solutions”, such as horizontal lifelines designed for roofs and tall buildings. “Imagine a cable that is on a rooftop or strung on the edge of a building you can connect into as you need to get up there and do some type of maintenance,” Irwin describes. The worker’s harness is connected to the lifeline via a trolley that runs along the cable, offering added flexibility, and the lifeline is strong enough to support several workers instead of just one.
“So if you have got a complicated situation to deal with,” says Irwin, “they can come in and they can run a lifeline in the ceiling and hook up a retractive device to that lifeline, and wherever you walk, it will go with you.”
Among 3M’s newer products through Capital Safety is the ExoFit STRATA Harness, which is designed to lighten the load off the worker’s shoulders with an aluminum bar that assists with weight distribution. “We are looking at it on an ergonomics standpoint,” Martin says. “This is reducing 85 per cent of the weight off of the workers’ shoulders when they are standing, 64 per cent of the weight when they are reaching.” This helps reduce fatigue and exhaustion in workers at the end of the workday, she explains.
Another Capital Safety development is the Nano-Lok Edge Twin-Leg Quick Connect Self Retracting Lifeline and Cable, a lifeline designed specifically for foot-level tie-off and applications where there are sharp edges. “This product goes through the rigorous testing for leading-edge applications in foot-level tie-off,” Martin explains. “It has got a bright orange colour, so it allows the employer or the workers to visibly see that the worker is wearing the right gear for the right job.”
Selecting the right fall-arrest equipment for employees who work at heights is key to preserving their lives, but so is providing the right fall-protection training. Lack of proper safety training has killed too many Canadian workers.
Jeff Cottrill is the editor of Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News.