Help prevent falls by using clear guidelines

What are some of the proper fall protection requirements and procedures for suspended work platforms?

Answered by Craig Firl, North American technical manager, Capital Safety, Red Wing, MN.

"Almost all accidents that involve scaffold failure would not lead to fatality or serious injury if proper personal fall-arrest systems were in use," states OSHA's Construction eTool on suspended scaffolds. This is a reminder that accidents, such as 2009's Christmas Eve scaffold collapse that killed four construction workers in Toronto, do not have to end tragically.

Regulations for fall protection on suspended work platforms are clear. OSHA 1926.451 requires each employee on a single-point or two-point adjustable suspension scaffold to be protected by both guardrail and personal fall arrest systems. Each employee on a boatswain's chair or catenary, float, needle beam, or ladder jack scaffold must be protected by a personal fall arrest system.

A two-point suspended scaffold, known as a swing stage, is the most common type of suspended work platform, typically used for window cleaning, restoration and repair work. Reasons these scaffolds can tilt vertically or even collapse include mechanical failure of lifting and lowering mechanisms, damage to the primary suspension lines, and overloading of the platform. The No. 1 hazard when working on a suspended platform is a fall.

A personal fall arrest system must be used to protect workers on suspended work platforms. Each worker must wear a full-body harness. A shock-absorbing lanyard connects the dorsal D-ring of the harness to a rope grab on either a vertical or horizontal lifeline, or to a structural member of the scaffold. If a horizontal lifeline or the scaffold itself is used as the anchor point, the scaffold must have additional independent support lines and automatic locking devices that can stop the scaffold from falling should the primary suspension lines fail. It is impermissible to tie off to the scaffold if the scaffold does not have independent secondary support lines with locking devices. Horizontal lifelines must be connected to structural members of the scaffold.

When vertical lifelines are used, there must be one for each worker and they must be fastened to designated anchor points independent of the scaffold, as well as be able to withstand 5,000 pounds. Each lifeline must be connected to a separate anchor point. A permanent rooftop anchor is the most common anchorage for vertical lifelines in this application. Standpipes, vents and other HVAC equipment are not appropriate anchor points. Furthermore, care must be taken to ensure the lifeline is not subject to abrasion from the edge of the roof.

A critical safety consideration is having compatible components for every system. The rope grab or sleeve must be compatible with the size and material of the lifeline. On a horizontal lifeline, the sleeve must be able to operate in a vertical orientation in case of scaffold failure. The lifeline must be compatible with the anchor point to ensure a secure connection.

A personal fall arrest system is not going to be effective if workers are not aware of requirements, not trained on how to use the components of the system, or do not understand nor care about the importance of using it. Employers must make sure fall protection requirements, equipment and training are part of a safety program enforced by supervisors.

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