While it might appear obvious that any elevated surface with unprotected edges poses a fall risk if not properly secured with fall prevention systems (fall arrest systems), there are many factors that need to be considered when ensuring a workplace is safe from fall risk.
These factors include:
- What causes the risk?
- Where is the risk and/or are the multiple places that pose a fall risk?
- Is there currently fall prevention in place?
- Is that fall prevention compliant with current local, state and federal regulations?
- Are there materials being used that increase the risk of fall?
While this is not an exhaustive list, it demonstrates the many details that go into properly preventing falls from an elevated surface in the workplace. And with the increasing risk of severe—or even fatal—injuries resulting from falls in the workplace, it is imperative that fall prevention is not left to chance or to an outdated or unregulated system.
Falls Are Costly in More Ways than One
The greatest cost from falls is undoubtedly the injury or even death of workers. The mental and physical toll a severe fall can take on an employee and their coworkers can be incredibly steep and lead to more far-reaching consequences, including feeling unsafe at, or distrusting of, the workplace. This can lead to decreased productivity and increased employee turnover.
In addition to the mental and emotional costs of a fall is the financial cost, which can add up quickly for employers. In fact, according to the CDC, workers’ compensation and medical costs associated with occupational falls in the U.S. have been estimated at $70 billion annually. For any workplace, the cost to compensate a worker for a fall—plus pay any potential fines for unsafe or lacking fall prevention—is reason enough to invest in proper fall prevention education and systems.
Industries Most at Risk for Falls
Certain industries have a much higher risk of fall from elevated surfaces than others, including construction and extraction, agriculture, electrical/utility trades, transportation, materials moving and cleaning and maintenance. In fact, according to data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, 261,930 workers in these industries (both government and private sector) missed one or more days of work due to a fall injury.
For example, electricians scaling an electric pole to repair damage caused by a lightning strike needs proper equipment to keep themselves safe for the duration of their work. Similarly, a janitorial staff person who is going to climb onto a ledge to clean a window needs proper equipment and to follow the appropriate safety measures to prevent a fall.
Ultimately, all workplaces that have employees working on elevated surfaces need to be aware of the risk of fall and how to prevent it. This is key to ensuring worker safety and business regulatory compliance.
What is most important, though, is not thinking of fall prevention from elevated surfaces with unprotected edges as a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. No two workplaces are exactly alike, which means that their fall prevention systems need to be tailored to their specific needs and causes of risk. Without proper educational tools, creating and maintaining fall prevention is no simple task.
Fortunately, there are some foundational fall prevention systems that businesses can customize to their unique needs to instill more safety and risk mitigation in their workplaces.
Common Sources of Fall Risk in Workplaces: Elevated Surfaces and Scaffolding
As previously mentioned, elevated work surfaces pose a major threat to worker safety due to the risk of falls.
Examples of these surfaces can include:
- Ship Decks
- Utility Poles
- Warehouse Mezzanines
- Elevator Shafts
- Grain Silos
- Floor Holes/Pits
This list does not touch on all elevated work scenarios that create a fall risk for workers, but it helps give a general idea of just how prevalent this risk is. According to OSHA standards, fall risk is present in any situation where someone is working in a location more than six feet off the ground. However, this does vary by industry, and some industries or workplaces need to have fall protection in place when workers are four feet off the ground or more.
Out of the list above, scaffolding is one of the greatest sources of fall risk, particularly in construction, maintenance or warehouse work. Scaffolding is a temporary, elevated work surface that holds people, materials or both. Scaffolding is most commonly used in construction and maintenance work but provides worker assistance in several industries.
There are two general types of scaffolding:
- Suspended scaffolding: one or more platforms suspended overhead by rope or other non-rigid supports
- Supported scaffolding: one or more platforms suspended from the ground by rigid support frames made from materials such as metal or wood
While it may seem odd that a tool meant to help workers accomplish tasks safely off the ground is actually the source of many workplace falls, it makes sense when one understands the intricacies of building sound scaffolding and realizes they vary by industry like construction, general workplace, so forth.
For a general idea of requirements for fall-safe scaffolding, here are a few factors to consider:
- Has the scaffolding been constructed according to manufacturer instructions?
- Are guardrails properly placed on unprotected edges?
- Are the platform bases sufficiently strong enough to support the workers and materials that will be on them?
- Keep in mind that this is in addition to the scaffolding being able to support its own weight.
- Weight-bearing requirements for supported and suspended scaffolding types differ, so one must make sure they understand the requirements for their specific scaffolding type.
- Is the scaffolding regularly maintained between uses?
- Proper take-down and set-up procedures must be followed every time.
- Is the person selecting and constructing the scaffolding appropriate for the task?
This is only scratching the surface of scaffolding use. To ensure proper protocols are being followed and maintained, it is important to have the proper tools and education at your disposal to get the job done correctly and safely to mitigate fall risk.
Common Fall Prevention Tactics
There are several measures one can take to help prevent falls in the workplace. To determine the best measures to take for any given work environment, there must first be a thorough review of the potential fall hazard (like an elevated work surface with unprotected edges) to make a fall prevention plan best tailored to that specific situation, project and work zone.
While completing this review, it’s important to consider:
- How far off the ground will someone be working?
- Will there be more than one person working simultaneously?
- What materials will be used (if any) and need to be accounted for?
- Will there be potential for increased slip risk due to environmental factors, such as outdoor work or the types of material being used?
- Will any dangerous machinery be used?
- Will this be a workspace that requires scaffolding or ladders for support?
Once a review is complete, planning for fall prevention can begin. Some simple, yet effective, fall prevention tactics are:
- Keep the workspace clear and free from clutter: This is especially important while working on elevated surfaces, as a trip and fall could result in much more severe injury than from the ground.
- Properly secure all unprotected edges: For any height more than four to six feet from the ground, if a worker trips and falls, there must be something in place to stop that person from falling off that location.
- Utilize safety harnesses and lines: When unable to use a ladder or scaffolding for support, a properly fitting harness and line are needed.
- Incorporate fall hazard warning signage: Keep workers on alert with signs indicating fall risk. This can help reduce the chance of accidental falls from workers simply not paying attention.
- Inspect fall prevention equipment before each use: Like any equipment, fall prevention equipment can lose effectiveness over time. Regular and thorough inspections can help ensure its efficacy or if it needs to be replaced.
It is important to note this list only just scratches the surface of all the detailed regulations around fall prevention for worker safety. For example, installing a guardrail on a surface with unprotected edges might appear straightforward, but many factors need to be considered, and standards met, to ensure it will truly protect workers from a fall. Additionally, there are different regulations for different industries, which brings in another layer of complexity to the task of preventing falls.
What’s Next in Fall Prevention?
Seeking expert, professional help—instead of trying to piece together a fall prevention system—is the safest choice for workers in any industry. National Safety Compliance (NSC) is a great partner for all things related to safe working environments, offering many resources to help businesses stay up-to-date on the latest in fall prevention tactics and regulations.
NSC’s Fall Protection Bundle includes everything a business needs to understand and implement proper fall prevention protocols. Utilizing a video kit, training booklets and an in-depth manual, this bundle will help businesses keep their workers safe, while helping to reduce time and money lost due to worker accidents and injuries.