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Paul Meli

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Paul Meli | December 17, 2013 | Comments Off on FALL PROTECTION – KNOWING THE RISKS


Falls, as you may know, cause more serious, long term disabling, and catastrophic injuries than nearly all other types of construction related worker injuries.  They are also “lagging indicators”, meaning that the injury or a fall event has occurred from an action or inaction while completing a high-risk activity.  Good businesses understand the need to implement risk control utilizing leading indicators rather than reacting or responding to lagging indicators; the approach is a simple one.

So, what is a lagging indicator in the risk management world.  Well, recently there has been some discussion about what a lagging indicator is and what a leading indicator is.  I like conversations such as this as it shares perspective and opens dialogue in the safety and risk management community in an attempt to uniform, qualify, and ultimately increase awareness to these very important issues.

Although this article is not about what a lagging or leading indicator is, I do want to take just a moment to address this topic.  I believe that when we gain a better understanding of the definition of a lagging or leading indicator we will achieve greater results with and from our risk management program.  For me, I see lagging indicators as many events, not just the aftermath of something gone wrong.  From my perspective, lagging indicators include near miss events, systemic program breakdowns / failures (safety and health focus in terms of unsafe habits), and operational shortcomings as it relates to risk planning.  Therefore, to my point – near misses, like worker injuries, are lagging indicators. Something has happened and while one event is not as bad as the other they are both historical actions thereby classifying them as lagging.

On the other hand, a leading indicator is a predictive assessment activity. With fall protection, a leading indicator would be the job hazard analysis (JHA), or a risk assessment. During the “predictive” process, we know from both experience, and our ability to identify high-risk activities or operations, what can happen if we do not take the necessary precautions in protecting our workforce.  When we can predict, we can prevent, which is my definition of a leading indicator.  This is a much better way of leading our industry with change. Knowing the difference between lagging and leading indicators we are better prepared to predict, prevent, and promote a safer working environment.

So, back to the topic of fall protection.  Fall protection, from a risk perspective, must be managed through the leading indicator process.  If we were to address fall protection through the lagging indicator response, it would look like this – when we see a worker in a situation that may lead to a fall, we need to make sure we control the action so that the worker is safe.  We then notify their employer of what we observed and require the employer to provide corrective action that will control or eliminate the fall hazard / risk from happening again.  Then, when a corrective action has been implemented, we again continue to observe the workers in areas where a fall exposure exist so we can maintain a safe working environment.  The leading indicator approach would be the pre-planning process (the JHA and/or risk assessment).  Predicting what is needed, when and why it is needed before we start the work is a better way to lead risk reduction.  How we get there is not as important as recognizing that we need to start using a leading indicator approach in our risk management programs.

What Are Our Choices –   

As part of any good “Hazard and Risk Management” program, fall protection training is a key component in controlling this risk.  In addition to training, there are two fundamental choices for fall exposure control – it is either elimination or protection.  As we heard from fall management training classes, there are two types of fall protection systems used to eliminate or protect the worker from a fall exposure – it is a “passive” or “active” fall protection system.  A passive system is a static system, meaning it is installed as a system barrier between the fall hazard and the workers at risk.  An example of passive control system would be a guardrail structure.  Another example is building a wall built between the fall hazard and the worker so you have essentially eliminated the risk.

Active systems are by design movable, flexible, and for the most part non-restrictive, though they do have inherent limitations.  It allows a worker to move along a fall exposure hazard, such as a leading edge, safely enough to allow the worker to complete some high-risk operations.

Both active and passive protective systems have a performance requirement designed in them, many we know from our experience and training.  The bottom line is this – perils in construction are everywhere.  When we are working near a fall exposure the hazards and risks must be identified (predicted), then controlled, and if possible eliminated.  This is the leading indicator approach.

A Most Important Final Piece:  The Rescue Plan –

Besides the two or three important elements of a fall protection plan I outlined above, no plan is complete without having a rescue plan in place.  Many times, our fall protection equipment saves us from an injury (fall protection equipment such as PFAS – personal fall arrest system, does not prevent the fall it actually interrupts a fall already in progress), but being suspended for even a short period of time can be fatal.  Suspension trauma or orthostatic intolerance can cause much more harm to the person saved by the fall arresting equipment than most fall equipment users realize.  While there is no specific time frame for one to be suspended in fall arresting equipment, the basic and generally accepted rule is to rescue the individual as quickly as possible (a few minutes is the general rule).   A few options should be consider when developing a rescue plan.  Some are – self-rescue, assisted rescue from trained site workers, or professional rescue support from outside agencies.

Important to keep in mind  – a fall plan has several components, no plan should be written, issued, or used without all the required OSHA and best practice components.  Fall protection – know the risks.

By the Numbers –

From the regulatory side, OSHA issued over 8,000 fall protection citations in FY 2013 that ended on September 30, 2013.  For that fiscal year (FY), fall protection was number one on the top ten list of most frequently cited standards.  The total number, seen below, equates to approximately 23 OSHA violations issued every day of the year.

1926.501Fall Protection Violations (cited 8,241 times during FY 2013) (Up from 7,250 in FY 2012)

Disclaimer: The information contained herein is solely the opinion of the author and shall not be construed to be the opinion or views of OSHAcampus or 360training, including any employer of author, if any.

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