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Heading For a Fall


For people who work at heights, falls are a common cause of injuries and fatalities — not only in the construction industry, but also in industrial workplaces, transportation and many other sectors.

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 is a wide variety of products in the field.

Rob Sawchuk, general manager with Northern Platforms Ltd., a firm in Leduc, Alberta that designs, supplies and installs fall-protection products for workers who climb onto rail cars and trucks, offers an alternative way of categorizing fall-protection equipment. “In my opinion, there are two types of fall protection: there is a proactive approach and a reactive approach.”

An example of a reactive equipment is a fall-arrest system in which a worker wears a harness anchored at a single point with a self-retracting lifeline. “When you fall, the system reacts. The self-retracting lifeline locks up, the harness holds you in place,” Sawchuk explains.

Northern Platforms’ equipment, on the other hand, offers a more proactive approach to arresting falls. “We provide basically an enclosure. We use a gangway and a safety cage,” Sawchuk says. When a worker inside a safety cage loses his balance, there is no fall distance associated with the plunge. “The worst thing you are going to get is a bruised knee or a bruised ego.”

Given the array of fall-protection equipment available on the market, John Fuke, technical services manager for Canada at Capital Safety’s office in Malton, Ontario, advises a company to narrow down its choices by focusing more on the type of equipment it needs. Assessing the type of work involved generally serves as a good guide as to what kind of fall-protection product is needed with respect to both anchorage and body support.

Chuck Roberts, sales specialist at the personal safety division of 3M Canada in London, Ontario, says it is an employer’s responsibility to understand what their employees are working with. “They have got to understand what their fall-arrest concerns are.” For example, it is important to consider what Roberts calls the “danger zone”, or the working room that the employee has from the working surface to the ground.

Other criteria to consider include the work itself, how critical it is to finish the task at hand 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, suggests Marc Harkins, product group manager of fall protection with MSA Safety in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. 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.

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.

SAFE, NOT SORRY

The costs of such protective equipment vary widely. But price should not be the sole deciding factor. “When you look at fines and court appeals and lawsuits that happen when employers don’t properly protect their workers, the price for a rescue system, the price for proper fall-protection equipment, is non-existent compared to what the lawsuits are,” Roberts cautions.

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. 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 drive up costs, he adds.

Even after the employer gets the product-selection part right, attention should be paid to its use. Certain environmental factors can affect the strength and reliability of a harness or lifeline, especially if the equipment is exposed to the elements when used outdoors. Work with chemicals, paints or solvents can affect one’s equipment as well. Weather, location and other worksite conditions certainly need to be considered when selecting the type of fall-protection equipment needed. For example, whether a system is to be installed indoors or outdoors is a question that employers should consider, since that can affect how easy it will be to maintain the system and, subsequently, how costly that may be.

Fuke recommends reading the instructions that come with protective gear to learn how to extend its lifespan. He advises that fall-protection equipment should be kept dry and stored in a cool, clean place out of the sun. Storing the webbing (the body of the belt, harness or lanyard) wet and in the sun allows ultraviolet rays to penetrate the web and weaken it. The dirt and the grime will also begin to break down the fibres and the web.

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.

Roberts recommends that employers inspect their equipment on both a per-use and an annual basis. 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.

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