Words: Steve Hansen
All construction work carries an element of risk of physical harm. So does driving to work every day. What matters most is how we deal with those risks—how we eliminate the risks when possible and mitigate risks at other times.
We covered the statistics of working at heights in our height safety article, where we overview the realities of jobsites. Nearly all workplace injuries and deaths are preventable, and that’s where training comes in. Proper training and creating a work culture that prizes safety at all times literally saves lives, and also saves and prolongs careers that are often cut short in this industry.
We talked with Greg Brown, Operations Manager at Malta Dynamics, about fall safety and fall arrest best practices. It starts with a simple daily practice. “OSHA requires that you do a pre-use inspection of your anchor points and all the gear you wear,” Brown said, referring to the safety harness systems that protect so many workers.
In addition to the pre-use inspection of the gear, the working or walking height that requires fall protection is mandated, though it varies from state to state. The OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirement for construction height is set at six feet. It’s important to know that requirement for the state you’re working in, which is your safety manager’s job to know and communicate.
Hierarchy Of Fall Protection
A key idea, Brown said, is the hierarchy of fall protection. The first thing to do is to eliminate hazards, which starts with eliminating the need for a worker to be in a place that requires fall protection. “Is there something that you can do not to be up there?” Brown asked. This approach can be more challenging than it seems. Arranging for a forklift for a task that takes 30 seconds will take time compared to grabbing a ladder and climbing it 20 feet. Choosing the ladder is also vastly more dangerous and shows why all employees need to know and follow the safety policies.
The next step in the hierarchy is passive protection without a full-body harness. “You guard yourself against the hazard. That could be something that you put on the scaffold, like a guardrail that’s got the top board, mid-rail, and toe board,” Brown noted
The last step in the hierarchy is the safety harness if the first two steps can’t eliminate the need for a harness.
How are you supposed to know all this information? “The best practice is to make sure that you’ve got the minimum education required to be on the jobsite and to work at heights,” Brown said. “That allows you to be what OSHA calls an ‘authorized person,’ so you’ve had enough training to be on that jobsite and perform that task.”
After that, everyone needs to know who is the “competent person” on the job site. “Sometimes that’s the safety manager,” Brown said. Frequently, however, the safety manager is not on-site all the time. “At that point, they will appoint somebody as a site-safety person. When they do that, that is your site safety coordinator. That person should be known by everybody working on the site as the one who’s in charge of safety on that site.”
The benefits of a safety manager or site safety person are numerous, especially as the person who knows the answers, knows the policies, and has the authority to pause work before any employee is put in harm’s way.
Training for safety
Reading a pamphlet or taking a short ad hoc program is not sufficient for contractors in most cases, though often companies are allowed to run their training programs. Typically, the safety manager will determine what training is needed.
“That’s nice because it (OSHA) does allow the companies to be site-specific and hazard-specific on their training,” Brown said. In addition, companies must document the training that employees have received. “If an investigation would occur, certainly OSHA would look into that and see what all that entailed, but it’s largely left up to the employer.”
Documenting all training is valuable in the event of a fall and injury and subsequent OSHA investigation, and it also helps firms run an organized training program. Onboarding new employees, for example, should include safety training before they are allowed to perform potentially risky work. Keeping up-to-date documentation ensures that no employees slip through the cracks of required training.
Countering misconceptions about safety
As with almost anything unknown, it’s common to feel a bit intimidated about fall protection. Brown said that a common viewpoint is to see it as a complex subject that’s the domain of the safety manager. “You check yourself out from having to know anything because you have a safety guy. But that guy is just there to help you. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to know anything about safety. It doesn’t mean that safety is this weird science that nobody understands,” he said.
By and large, jobsite safety regarding fall protection is simple, especially compared to chemical safety, for example. That said, Brown has seen companies and employees overcomplicate the topic. “I think it’s an easy thing to make way more complicated than it needs to be. But if you’re the worker on the site, and you are the one wearing the safety harness, it can be more simple. It doesn’t have to be a gray area. And with more training and more exposure, and more talking with safety managers, it becomes much simpler,” Brown said.
On a daily-practice basis, the worker using fall protection can perform a thorough inspection quickly. “It doesn’t have to be this long, elaborate task of making sure that my harness and my connectors and my deceleration device are okay to use. It’s very quick. It’s something that you should do every day because you trust your life with it,” he said.
The culture around safety continues to improve, as well, Brown noted. “As we see more training, and workers get more exposure to the hazards and things that they should do, it becomes a little more simple, and it’s a little bit better to incorporate into your daily routine. If we look at the history of how many people would tie off five years ago, ten years ago, I think you’ll see that the ratio is better now. And we’ll be better again in five years.”
A big part of adopting new habits and requirements is simply repeated exposure, reminders, and reprimands, as necessary. From day one, new employees will learn that the company values and practices jobsite safety, and training is part of that.
“That’s all exposure to safety culture, and knowing what you can lose, and making it simpler, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple. And it gets that way with additional training and additional exposure to safety-related material.”
Any of us who are old enough to remember the adoption of seat-belt laws in cars can relate. We might have thought it was a good idea, but it shouldn’t be mandated until we were unlucky enough to be hurt in a collision. Then we realized that it’s a tiny price to pay for a massive benefit: keeping us alive.