“It’s something I’ll never forget.” That’s how DEKRA Senior Vice President, Don Martin, describes the day he was working at a paper mill and saw first-hand the danger of falls from height in the workplace.
“I worked in the paper industry as a safety director a while back. Our paper mill was probably 7 to 8 stories tall and ready to be re-roofed. We contracted with a roofing company, the job started, and the crew took the roof panels up to the top of the building on an elevator. As they unloaded the cart of panels, the wind began to blow. One of the roofers carrying a roofing panel was caught by a wind gust that literally lifted him up and pulled him over the edge of the roof. He fell three stories onto a roof below! He fractured his spinal column and was paralyzed from the waist down.”
Unfortunately, Martin’s experience is not unique. According to the latest statistics, the number one reason for on-the-job serious injury or fatalities is falling from height. Data gathered by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics show there were approximately 700 fatal falls to a lower level in 2016, an increase of 8% from 2015. Even more alarming, the Bureau reports that 47% of these fatal falls were from a height of 15 feet or less!1
This is why Fall Prevention Awareness Week – taking place September 23-29 and sponsored by the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence – is so important to Martin. He says it is an excellent opportunity for organizations to renew their safety efforts around working at height.
Exposure to falling is routine in most workplaces, but especially in the construction trades. Workers have an inaccurate perception of risk and do not realize the hazards commonly associated with these worksites. Safety controls – such as a harness and lanyard attachment system or three points of contact on a ladder – are overlooked or ineffective. Construction sites are constantly changing, either erecting or dismantling structures, all happening at a rapid pace. Workers can be working 10 feet above grade with inadequate or no fall protection devices and be unaware of the exposure risk. In a manufacturing environment, many times the exposure has been normalized throughout its years of operation. These organizations have a high level of tolerance for working at height and may not always practice exposure controls.
Any work done at four feet or higher from the ground is a significant threat for injury or worse. Controls must be in place to mitigate the exposure. How can this be done so that the workers most exposed are aware of the risk? Is it enough to have a Fall Prevention Awareness week or must management do more than hang a few posters and consider it done?
Field observation and verification of controls is the first step in the process. Safety leaders must go to the worksite and observe routines that could put workers at risk for falling. Asking the workers questions about how they perceive their exposure and how they would design the job and protect each other from risk. It must be a two-way conversation, engaging the workers and listening to their concerns and ideas about how to protect themselves and fellow workers from exposure to risk.
Don Martin gives his view on how to implement an effective awareness campaign:
“I would go out in the field and I would have individual meetings with my crew - much like a focus group. I would ask the crew how they feel that they're protected from working at heights. What are their views on how well the company is providing them what they need to do their jobs safely? I would have those conversations in groups with the crew and make sure they are fully aware of this issue and they fully understand it. It's one thing to have a superficial understandin g of working at height, but it's something very different for workers to understand how they can control that exposure and that they make the behavioral commitment to put those controls into place. Most importantly, they would stop the job if the control was missing or ineffective.”
One of the critical elements to successful fall prevention is if the workers are willing to stop the job until the control is in place. A second critical element is a supervisor engaging the worker in a conversation about the controls that must be in place for protection from falls and both signing a work permit stating all the safety preconditions have been met.
Other key elements that could prevent a fall is to ensure surfaces are dry and level so there is no risk of structure movement; unobstructed vision so the worker can see all around the work field, and an engineering design mentality that could possibly remove the option of working at height.
Taking precautions to assure exposures are controlled and risks are minimized are critical in reducing the rates of falling from heights. Don’t take safety controls for granted – be vigilant so you or your coworkers aren’t in next year’s fatal falls statistic.
1United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2017), Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2016, USDL-17-1667, Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm