Height Safety

Words: Cassandra Stern  

Photos: Pakorn_Khantiyaporn, vm 

According to the Center for Construction Research and Training’s recent analysis of data from the NIOSH’s Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation program, nearly 42% of construction worker fatalities that occurred between 1982 and 2015 involved a fall. Of those, 54% had no access to a personal fall arrest system (PFAS), and a further 23% had PFAS access but either neglected to use it, or used it incorrectly. The nature of masonry work often takes workers to dizzying heights via the use of scaffolding and other equipment, but considering that approximately 66% of the fatal falls in the studied period occurred from heights of fewer than thirty feet, it’s clear that an element of danger exists no matter the elevation.  

So what happens when someone falls? Apart from the obvious danger of bodily harm and subsequent physical consequences, there is an arduous process all involved parties must go through if a fall takes place on a worksite, regardless of the outcome. Fall risk is always on the mind of the likes of Ken Hebert, whose years of experience in the industry have taught him exactly what happens when a worker falls.  

Hebert is the National Sales Manager of Malta Dynamics, a fall protection equipment manufacturer founded in 2015 with a group of other safety professionals sharing similar experience in the masonry industry. In his day-to-day, he typically engages “with the customers. I find out what they need, and what types of best practices that they’re using in the field. I share that information to the best of my ability with other safety directors around the country, and we also use that information, which is invaluable to us, to upgrade and make changes to our products.”  

Following an incident where an authorized person falls, documentation will quickly become both crucial and voluminous. “An Incident Report has to be filled out,” Hebert states. “OSHA has to be notified, and an evaluation usually takes place of what occurred. If OSHA gets involved, and they’re supposed to, then like a detective, they’re going to gather the data, and the facts, and write a report, and very often a citation is issued to the company.” As a result, he concludes, “the company has a hearing, or day in court, where they appear before OSHA, and they go through the process of explaining what happened.”  

This can and often will end with fines and/or other consequences, and is a hugely unpleasant process that can also be emotionally exhausting. Hebert adds, “for an owner, a good owner, an accident on their jobsite is devastating. Not just financially, it’s devastating to them personally. Owners these days really feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for their workers. And they do not want accidents.” In order to avoid this unnecessary and often tragic ordeal, strict compliance with industry standards, as well as a variety of other tactics are required to empower workers and minimize risk. It’s in the best interest of all parties involved on a jobsite to exercise the utmost care and precaution when working with the threat of additional height, but there is always more that can be done to keep authorized persons protected.  

The first means of providing workers with an additional layer of protection from falls is proper and comprehensive education and training on the subject. Regarding training, Hebert explains “any worker on a jobsite is considered an authorized person, that’s the technical OSHA given name of a worker. If you authorize a person to work on your jobsite, you have, as the employer, an obligation to train them on how to use the tools and equipment they’re going to work with but also, you have to train them how to work and use that equipment safely, and that includes the components of a personal fall arrest system.”  

This is a big responsibility on the company’s part, and requires more than just a quick presentation and a few short quizzes. There’s a crucially important practical element to training, which Hebert describes in great detail as he illustrates the process. “You have to train them on how to don their harness,” he says, as well as “how to inspect their harness, what connectors are approved, how to read the labels, and how to read the instructions.” Additionally, “most companies require training for each authorized person,” he says, as opposed to group trainings that do not allow as much freedom to tailor to an individual’s learning needs or provide specialized attention and instruction- especially when addressing common issues like correctly calculating swing fall clearance.  

Jocelyn Durant, Senior Marketing Manager from Pure Safety Group, echoes similar sentiments regarding the crucial important of proper training. “Before working at height,” she cautions, “all workers must be trained relative to their duties in the proper use of fall protection equipment.” Durant refers to the OSHA 1910 Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Protective Equipment (Fall Protection Systems) standard, which mandates that “before any employee is exposed to a fall hazard, the employer must provide training for each employee who uses personal fall protection systems.”  

Once the training process is complete, employers will have new hires “sign a document that says that they’ve received the training, and that’s to protect them from the liability,” says Hebert. However, Durant is careful to emphasize that “in-person training classes…are the most effective as they allow the worker to put into practice that which they have learned under the guidance of a professional before taking to the jobsite.” This ensures that when the documents certifying training completion are executed, the employee is ready and able to begin working safely.  

While “the documentation of the training process is critical for employers across the country in this day and age,” states Hebert, it’s proper training that ensures they will hopefully never be necessary. However, “if someone does get hurt on a jobsite, ultimately the employer, if he’s going to prove that the worker was properly trained and it was just a situation where the worker did not follow through with the training and the protocols, and the means and methods that the company had laid out for them and got them to sign, they would have to show all of that documentation.”  

Once an authorized person has been trained and educated regarding the most current OSHA regulations regarding fall risks, they must be then be suitably equipped with the correct PFAS.  Hebert breaks down fall protection as “basically the A’s, B’s, and C’s of a personal fall arrest system. ‘A’ represents the anchors, ‘B’ represents the bodywear or harnesses, and ‘C’ represents the connectors, which can traditionally be lanyards or self-retracting lifelines.”  

Companies like Malta Dynamics make all the parts to a PFAS, and they address additional height safety needs as well, like their “mobile fall arrest system that… [which] allows for fall arrest anywhere, anytime.” This innovative product is “mobile, it’s like a trailer hitch, and you can bring that trailer into position anywhere behind a truck.” The possibilities are almost endless, says Hebert, as “you can tow it, you can forklift it in, and there’s a mast that goes up 34 ½’ and you can tie people off to it.”  

This means that “if there’s no fall protection anywhere or overhead and they have to get off the ground and they have to technically be tied off and OSHA requires it but there’s nothing to tie off to this system provides tie-off and keeps their workers safe.”  

For example, workers will often use PFAS components like retractables outside of their intended application. Hebert states, “eighty to ninety percent of workers are using retractables designed to work over their head only, and they’ll even say on the back of the label that ‘this is designed for overhead use.’” While it’s recommended that “you need to stay within a 30° cone underneath the retractable, keep it overhead at 30°, and don’t step outside of a 30° imaginary cone,” Hebert concedes that “almost no one in the masonry/concrete business follows that,” which is a serious problem exposing workers to potentially hazardous falls. By creating stronger retractables with different break away designs and putting them in the hands of the masonry industry, companies like Malta Dynamics and Pure Safety Group are providing a simple and effective means of handing this issue.  

Thoroughly checked equipment and workers that know how to use it are extremely important components to a well-functioning jobsite, but by no means ensure OSHA compliance to height safety standards. However, clear and effective communication does wonders to continue to improve workers’ overall safety and productivity at little to no cost to the employer.  

One way to streamline effective communication, Hebert recommends, is through taking the proper precautions. “A review of the JHA, or Jobsite Hazard Analysis, means the competent person or safety director or supervisor will meet with the workers prior to the job and they will layout the means and methods of how they will be OSHA compliant with regards to safety during this activity, and they go through their protocols they all talk about it.”  

This only works, says Hebert, if “they communicate with each other,” and most importantly “they don’t let someone on the jobsite who isn’t aware of how they’re going to handle it.” To do so would be knowingly endangering not only that authorized person, but also any authorized person working with or around them on the jobsite.  

One such component of a JHA is taking the time to establish controlled access zone, which are specifically designed warning lines, tape, and/or flags to separate workers from different industries sharing a jobsite as the focus of the work shifts with the scope of the project as it moves through different phases towards completion.  

Without those pre-determined plans, “you’re going to have problems,” Hebert asserts, “and those problems, the reason these rules are put into place the way they are and are written out so technically is because people have fallen.” This only further emphasizes the importance of enforcing consistent and compliance with OSHA rules and regulations regarding fall protection on the jobsite.  

Durant wholeheartedly agrees that communication is key to keeping workers safe, and provides an additional suggestion for contractors looking to improve the practice at their companies. Toolbox Talks, or brief meetings with different groups tackling specific projects, are an excellent means of directly delivering important information to those who immediately need it.  

This also eliminates the potential for any confusion or miscommunication as instructions or warnings travel from person to person (not unlike the childhood game “Telephone”.) Says Durant, “Toolbox Talks don’t have to be long, nor complex; their effectiveness lies in their frequency. Daily, or even weekly Toolbox Talks with immediately pertinent information go a long way to help keep safety in the front of workers’ minds.”   

Thankfully, Hebert concludes, “I think general contractors overall have done a phenomenal job over the last two decades at dialing in their means and methods and to take precautions so that these days, these accidents don’t happen on their jobsite.” The data backs him up, as well: fall fatalities reduced from 42% between 1982-2015 to 39% in 2017 (381 out of 971 total deaths in construction in CY 2017), and overall worker deaths in America “are down- on average, from about 38 worker deaths a day in 1970 to 14 a day in 2017.” This is a positive trend, due in no small part to the efforts by companies like Malta Dynamics and Pure Safety Group.  

Durant arrives to the same conclusion, agreeing that “height safety is not optional, is not an impediment to getting the job done nor does its short-term cost outweigh its long term benefit.” If workers are taught from the beginning to consider fall protection equipment and best practices as crucial tools for getting the job done, then “many lives could be saved, many fines avoided, and ultimately, more can be accomplished – safer – with a unified and universal approach to height safety.”  

When masonry firms empower their employees with the knowledge and the tools that they need to safely and successfully perform their work, and clearly and effectively communicate the day-to-day jobsite information necessary, it is evident this is providing additional layers of fall protection to keep authorized persons safe. Ultimately Hebert agrees that while “I think the safety culture, the safety directors that I know and deal with have worked very hard and are very professional and when it comes to making their workers safer,” there is always more to be done to increase the effectiveness of jobsite fall protection.  

After all, states Durant, “as stated by OSHA, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure workers are trained before they are exposed to a fall hazard.” Though Hebert may be correct in his remarks that “the culture has definitely changed, there’s no doubt about that,” this positive trend will only continue if workers and companies continue to work side-by-side to ensure safety standard compliance.