Workplace Solutions Fall protection

Fall protection and the Hierarchy of Controls

Regarding fall protection, should we focus on the latest “gadgets” or the basic hierarchy of addressing the risk of gravity?

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Photo: Mike Sharkey

Responding is Melissa Black, MS, CSP, CIH, president, MsR3 LLC; and adjunct professor, College of Emergency Services, Occupational Safety and Health, Columbia Southern University, Orange Beach, AL.

Gravity is a simple yet deadly concept. After health issues such as heart disease, stroke and cancer, Americans are more likely to die from unintentional poisoning, followed by vehicle collisions. Close behind at No. 4 are falls, according to Injury Facts – an online source of preventable death and injury statistics compiled by the National Safety Council. Poisoning has advanced in the ranks as a cause of preventable death rates. At first, this may seem shocking, but if you consider how much opioid use and the incidental overdoses have skyrocketed in recent years, it’s not as surprising.

In fact, it stands to reason that some fall fatalities may be related to opioids or even illnesses that we have not been able to capture at this juncture. When discussing the “simple” topic of the control of gravity, many of these situations aren’t considered. In reality, training others how to control gravity to make a job function safer is complex.

As safety professionals, we know the Hierarchy of Controls, yet we rarely hear of those in high-risk industries spending much time and energy on elimination or substitution of tasks that have a high probability of falls. Only in the past decade have we begun to see great strides to “engineer out” the risk. Platform ladder systems, portable guardrail systems for rooftops, and improved designs for skylights and roof openings are just a few examples. Granted, high-performance employers are taking proactive measures at the first and second levels of the Hierarchy of Controls, but these are still new concepts for far too many.

We all like gadgets. When it comes to personal protective equipment, our gadget appetite is no different. Don’t misunderstand – it’s wonderful that we have advanced so far from the 1990s when a waist belt and lanyard were considered fall protection PPE; however, when you consider just a few of the factors that are needed to make informed, lifesaving decisions on fall, it can be daunting. There’s rip stitch, shock absorption, deceleration distance, D-ring shift, back height, fall height, lanyard length, swing radius, safety factor, self-retracting systems, anchor points, locking/nonlocking cantilevers, deflection and more. Combined with a population that may be reluctant to acknowledge a lack of understanding or ask questions, you can have a recipe for disaster.

Even so, we will continue to see great progress in this relatively new industry of fall PPE. For example, we have learned that differences in our physical bodies present distinctive risks from gravity, even if the fall is mitigated. Therefore, great strides have been made by a few manufacturers on anatomically correct PPE for men and women.

It is hoped that we will not be so enthralled with gadgets that we forget the simple basics: Design out the need to be at height whenever possible. Remove gravity, remove the risk.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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