Words: Adrian Dominguez
Photos: Malta Dynamics
Everyone has that same dreaded feeling, the kind that sinks in deep when they realize how something so present and ordinary in their lives can lead to a life-altering situation once that something is lost. Losing the ability to drive, for example, would financially cripple any one of the millions of workers who commute every day, in some cases similar to losing employment altogether.
An unfortunate fall can be a devastating setback to both the employer and worker regarding physical harm or legal liability in the masonry field. It even happens the same way as most game-changing events: when you least suspect it. From the newcomers to the seasoned veterans, an unfortunate accident can occur that, more often than not, could have been prevented given proper education and precautions. Being reactionary regarding fall hazard prevention is a far too costly approach than the tried-and-true method of being proactive by minimizing the risks first and foremost. You can’t have better protection than preventing dangerous situations from occurring in the first place – especially against potentially life-threatening scenarios.
Fall solution specialists such as Alex Hogan of Malta Dynamics discuss how to make sure that fall prevention plans include correctly identifying risks ahead of time. Establishing the proper training and the right equipment to handle the threat of falling before it happens can be tricky. Still, industry-proven approaches can help prevent the risk of falling and the damage an incident will undoubtedly create.
The first thing to consider when preparing for fall prevention is simple enough: what is a fall? While almost everyone is familiar with the word and its concept, OSHA sets specific metrics for the industry’s legal definition, particularly in the case of falls. The answer to this seemingly simple question, therefore, can vary between different areas within construction. As per the guidelines according to OSHA, the distinction between the most frequent type of reported injuries for employees comes in the form of slips, trips, and falls, or STF. All of these can happen due to a variety of reasons, but more often than not, they are considered to be preventable:
- Slips – Too little friction or traction between feet/footwear and walking/working surface, resulting in loss of balance, often moving backward. This is often due to slick working surfaces and the lack of care when walking over them.
- Trips – Feet or lower leg hits an object as the upper body continues moving, resulting in loss of balance, often moving forwards. Often due to negligence of the environment at large, like having equipment or other objects lying about
- Falls – The most dangerous type by far occurs when too far off the center of balance, which can be caused by either a slip or a trip. This happens past multiple levels from a ‘trigger height.’
Proper knowledge and awareness can prevent poor habits from developing on a job, lowering the chances of risk to both employer and employee regarding slips and trips. However, a fall can be so devastating that there needs to be a more careful approach to the job as a whole. OSHA sets the aforementioned trigger heights depending on the industry in question as workplace details vary between fields, but it is defined in relation to masonry as being 10 feet.
Falls are statistically the leading cause of death in construction, already amongst the most dangerous occupations in the US, with 320 fatal falls to a lower level out of 1,008 construction fatalities that were considered preventable as per data from the Bureau of Labor and Service data in 2018 (www.bls.gov). Furthermore, there is always a significant financial impact incurred on both the injured worker and employer in the form of corresponding fines, paperwork, and lost project time.
The total cost of fatal and nonfatal injuries in the construction industry is estimated at nearly $13 billion annually. The direct and indirect costs for fatal accidents in construction result in an average loss of $4 million to employers. The time away from work for a non-fatal injury costs approximately $42,000 (www.elcosh.org). The ultimate consequences in the aftermath of a fall, from possible death and debilitation to hefty amounts of overhead for the employer, require a proper approach to minimize the worst-case scenario’s chances.
Having the proper fall protection plan is essential yet complex: how does one come together in the first place? Alex Hogan, Sales Manager with fall protection equipment supplier Malta Dynamics, warns: “Don’t be the person that doesn’t have a plan,” further adding that proper identification of risk factors along with using the proper equipment to address those risks is vital before the project can start. The simple acronym EPRA can be utilized as a basic hierarchy of fall protection steps for the job at hand to help determine the best course of a prevention strategy:
- E – Eliminate Risk: Using any methods or tools to remove a worker from the hazardous situation in the first place.
- P – Prevent Access: This requires barring construction workers from interacting with fall hazards such as guardrails on scaffolding.
- R – Restraint – When a fall hazard is not blocked, the worker is prevented from accessing the fall hazard via a suitable device. Common restraint solutions are a harness and lanyard, self-retracting device, or a vertical lifeline.
- A – Arrest – The worker cannot completely avoid the risk of falling, so this prevention equipment aims at protecting against a more considerable, more dangerous drop.
Keeping this acronym in mind can help get the proper systems in place, especially when deciding on a worker’s protective equipment’s crucial aspect. Just as with the overall fall prevention plan, the equipment needs to be carefully researched, too, as improper assessment and use of any component of the selected tools for the project can still lead to severe problems. So when restraint or arrest approaches are necessary, the personal fall arrest system, or PFAS, is the set of protective equipment required to counter the danger of falling as much as possible on the worksite. The PFAS will consist of three components, also best remembered as an acronym in ABC:
- Anchor – Attached to a structure to prevent the danger of falling can be various things like D-ring plates, toggle anchors, swivel anchors, or even.
- Bodywear – The gear that the worker wears that serves as the physical restraint/arrest. This is typically some form of vest or harness.
- Connector – Some form of tether which connects the harness to the anchor. This can range from simple fixed-length nylon or steel lanyards to single or dual self-retracting devices, 6 to 100 feet in length.
With this equipment in mind, it is also essential to assess what is needed while considering which EPRA approach to take. Using any components of PFAS outside of the intended purpose is one of the biggest misconceptions in the masonry industry, according to Alex. Of the 42% of fall-related construction worker fatalities between 1982 and 2015, a whopping 54% had no access to a PFAS, with an additional 23% having PFAS access incorrectly using it if it was even used at all (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
Keeping safe on the worksite is constantly evolving. Staying ahead of the needs and anticipating the industry’s changes has led suppliers such as Malta Dynamics to adapt current equipment to make that judgment call easier. Take, for example, the connector piece; Malta Dynamics converted their lanyards to SRL’s or self-retracting lifelines. According to Mr. Hogan, the masonry industry’s self-retracting lifeline is “all-encompassing in one unit” as the connecting wire is housed in the harness unit itself. A benefit of an SRL over having to drag a lanyard or a rope behind you dramatically reduces the risk of a trip, which can lead to a more severe fall. Even now, Malta Dynamics recently announced the release of new adjustable restraint lanyards that feature flexibility for positioning and restraint on bucket trucks, lifts, and similar applications to prevent the possibility of a fall.
The right approach to any project is clearly not a one-size-fits-all affair. Given the variety of factors present in keeping masonry contractors safe, both worker and employer’s importance knowing the aforementioned steps to determine what the job will look like and what is needed is paramount. There are plenty of sources to seek out for information on the details required for accidental fall prevention onsite. The essential steps discussed by fall solution specialists like Alex at Malta Dynamics are developed by years of experience and feedback from industry veterans and experts to help secure the equipment needed for any project at hand. Some projects simply can’t avoid the inherent risk. But even more critical to safety on the worksite is properly assessing what those tools are but why masons would need them, what they are designed to safeguard against, and most importantly, avoiding the possibility of human error altogether if possible while still completing the project. In the end, the education falls on everyone on the worksite to keep it as safe and secure as possible.