I’ve been in many warehouses. Many, many warehouses. The difference in safety culture from one to the next is as varied as the products they store. Some are in pristine, new buildings with clear lines painted on the floor, have only safe, certified forklift operators driving the machines, and have meticulously stacked products on their shelves.
Others…well, not so much.
Then there are those that fall in-between. These are the ones that have some sort of safety program that kind of addresses their hazards. In these situations, the obvious problems are the ones that are most likely addressed: operator training, safely stacking product, wheel-chocking of trucks, and things like that. However, things that take a little more depth of knowledge might be missed. What are some hidden hazards that might be looming over one of these warehouses, waiting to strike?
Because the vast majority of work in a warehouse takes place at ground level, fall protection sometimes fails to be a consideration, yet there is a potential for falls in many situations. In many warehouses, forklifts place the product up high and retrieve it, but in some, pallets and cases need to be broken to fill orders. Some of these are at heights and it is simpler to use a lift to put a person up there than it is to bring the pallet down, select what you need, and return the product to its original place. In this situation, fall protection would be needed. The employee being raised would not only need to be on something designed to lift a person (in other words, no standing on a pile of coffee bean sacks on a pallet on the forks of a forklift – I’m not saying this did actually happen…), but may also be required to be tied off, depending on the type of lift being used.
But your fall protection concerns don’t end there. Do you have mezzanines? Elevated walkways? I’m sure you’ve already addressed the need for rails – but if you haven’t, now is the time. The part that is more likely to get missed, though, is your loading area. If you have a break in the rails with no way to close it up when a loaded forklift is not present, then you have a violation. Mezzanine and pallet gates solve this problem. Self-closing gates ensure that nobody leaves the gate open, exposing your employees to a fall you thought you’d protected against.
The same issue may exist at the top of fixed ladders. Do you have any locations where there is a break in the railing to access the ladder? Depending on the layout, you may want to – or need to – consider a self-closing safety gate as well.
Struck By Hazards
Hopefully, your forklift operators have been properly trained, so that they know the best practices to help avoid collisions with other forklifts or pedestrians. Staying to the center of aisles, stopping at intersections, using provided mirrors, keeping a safe distance from other forklifts, travelling the proper speed, and ensuring any spills are immediately cleaned up definitely help prevent injury from direct collision, but there is always room for human error. Certain safeguards can help further reduce the chance for human error, as well as injury from indirect contact (for example, a forklift bumps into a rack knocking product off onto a pedestrian).
Strategically placed bollards can help protect product, utilities, and personnel from your forklift traffic. This forces your equipment to give a greater safety cushion when travelling. You can use impact barriers or safety rails to line sections of your pedestrian walkways as well, eliminating any chance that somebody passing through your warehouse wanders into traffic or on the opposite side of a rack that is being loaded.
Just because you don’t store product known to be hazardous materials, doesn’t mean you don’t have hazardous materials. Even small amounts of flammable liquids need to be properly stored so they don’t present a hazard. Your maintenance team could have materials that fall into this category. Ensure that you have the proper flammable liquid storage cabinets as is required by OSHA for any products you are storing. And, if you haven’t been diligent about the type of materials being stored in your warehouse, now’s the time to check. Even materials just passing through need to be properly stored in a separate barricaded part of the warehouse to prevent accidental contact. Signage needs to be posted as required to inform employees of the fact that this is indeed hazardous material and to prevent smoking near flammables. Employees handling this material need to be properly trained and SDSs need to be available. Finally, depending on the type and amount of material, can you legally store such material in your building and is your fire suppression system sufficient to fight a fire involving what you have on site?
There are many regulations that apply to the handling, transfer and storage of hazardous materials. Warehouses that deal specifically with this are usually well-equipped. It’s those that only handle some here and there that often find themselves lacking the resources to properly handle compliance. If you have hazardous materials, seek out the advice of somebody familiar with the regulations to ensure you are not opening yourself up to fines and your employees up to illness and injury.
In the end, full hazard assessments are the key to ensuring that you are properly prepared for any situation. If you do not have somebody capable of doing this thoroughly, seek out the expertise of somebody who does. Abating some hazards is never a satisfactory solution. Don’t wait until you are experiencing employee injuries or a warehouse fire to perform the due diligence you should already be performing.
Homeowners and building managers cannot be expected to be experts in every area of maintenance and repairs that need to be performed on their building. Day in and day out, contractors around the country are hired to perform such work because they are the experts. Some of this work takes place in dangerous places – such as roofs – and, as we all know, falls occur. Injuries occur. So, who is responsible when that happens? Can you be sued?
I know you’ve heard this answer before, but – as is often the case – it depends. Let’s be honest, if the answer was a simple yes or no, this wouldn’t be much of an article!
Generally speaking, a building owner is not responsible for the actions of contractors working on their building, but there are exceptions. From an OSHA standpoint, unless the building owner was taking on the role of construction manager, they would be free of responsibility in the event of a contractor’s injury. If they were assuming the construction management role, that could put them in line for a citation as a Controlling Contractor under OSHA’s Multi-Employer Worksite policy. Yes, contract language would need to be parsed even in that case, but at the very least the possibility arises.
What about legally, though? From a litigation standpoint, is the building owner liable? Again, the answer is maybe. Technically, no, the building owner can’t be liable for a contractor’s actions – unless it can be proved that the incident occurred due to the building owner’s negligence. The best thing you, as a homeowner or building owner, can do, is reduce your exposure. How?
- License and Insurance: If your contractor doesn’t have them, look elsewhere. These are in place to help protect you, so, if your neighbor, Fred the teacher…cop…IT guy…etc., wants to help by climbing onto your roof with his tool belt, you’d better think twice about this. And, don’t just take the contractor’s word. Ask to see the current license. Any hesitation to produce this should raise a red flag. Also, ask to see a current insurance policy. You could always call the insurance company to verify the contractor is covered.
- Do not lend any personal tools or equipment to the contractor. This may seem like a nice thing to do, but the moment something goes wrong with that tool, you’re exposed. Besides, any good contractor is going to have what they need to do the job. If they don’t, maybe they’re not as professional as they claim to be.
- Fix up their work area. If you, as a building owner, know of any problems that could present danger to the contractor, take care of it or have it taken care of prior to the beginning of work. Has one of your skylight cages come loose? You’d better repair it before a contractor steps foot on your roof. If you can’t because there isn’t time and they are up there doing some type of emergency repair, you had better, at the very least, notify them of it. Barricade it if you can or ask them to, but whatever you do, don’t just ignore the problem.
- Offer up all necessary information to the contractor about things you are not able to fix. Is there an infestation of some kind that could be affecting the integrity of the roof? They’d better know this before they begin work so they can take whatever precautions they deem necessary to protect their workers.
- Require your contractors to abide by OSHA regulations (unless you’ve got a more stringent set of rules). This does not mean you have to be out there auditing their performance (you may not, in fact, have the knowledge or ability to do so even if you wanted to), but you want them to know that you expect it of them.
- Documentation, documentation, documentation. First, is there a contract in place in which the contractor releases you from liability? If not, try to get this in place. Did you meet with the contractor to explain the hazards you could not correct? Write up a summary of that meeting and put it in a letter or email to the contractor. Remember, if it’s not on paper, it might as well have never happened.
The last thing you want to do is put yourself at risk when there should have been no risk to you at all. Due diligence is the key. Make sure you have selected a solid, professional contractor, check their paperwork and create your own. If your contract or agreement with the contractor does not call for you to direct their work, don’t. Let them do their job and be on their way to the next one.
Way back in August of 2012, a new ANSI standard was released that addressed the use of retractable lifelines for personal fall arrest and in rescue situations. These self-retracting lifelines had been in use for quite some time and, as they had gotten smaller, lighter, and more inexpensive, they had also become more commonly used. ANSI’s standard – ANSI Z359.14-2012 – provided previously undeveloped guidance on performance, design, testing, markings, instructions, inspections, maintenance, storage, and remove from service of retractable lifelines. In so doing, ANSI also created two classes of retractables, which they called A and B.
Now, for the uninitiated, ANSI – the American National Standards Institute – does not write law. That is OSHA’s job. What ANSI does do, is write guidance standards for various products. From there, manufacturers tend to voluntarily adopt the standards for use in their testing (and, if a company has an incident as a result of their not meeting a published ANSI standard, OSHA will most likely want to know why they weren’t meeting the standard). Many companies will voluntarily adopt ANSI standards as “best practices” and OSHA will, eventually, incorporate many ANSI standards into the regulations by reference.
So, as noted, one of the key provisions of the Z359.14 – 2012 was that self-retracting lifelines would be divided into two categories – A and B. Which category a retractable fell into depended on the results of dynamic performance testing.
- Maximum arrest distance not to exceed 24” (610mm).
- Average arresting force not to exceed 1350 lbs (6kN) or maximum peak of 1800lbs (8kN).
- After environmental conditioning (hot, cold, wet), average arresting force not to exceed 1575 lbs (7 kN) or a maximum peak of 1800 lbs (8kN).
- Maximum arrest distance not to exceed 54” (1372 mm)
- Average arresting force not to exceed 900 lbs (4kN) or a maximum peak of 1800 lbs (8 kN).
- After environmental conditioning (hot, cold, wet), average arresting force not to exceed 1125 lbs (5 kN) or a maximum peak of 1800 lbs (8kN).
All in all, the two classes are divided by 2.5 feet of arresting distance and 450 lbs of arresting force.
What does this mean to you, the user?
The maximum arresting force probably won’t play into your planning very much. When worn with a body harness, both of these classes meet the OSHA requirement of limiting the arresting force on the human body to 1800 lbs. However, when planning your fall protection, the maximum arrest distance will figure into your fall distance calculation. Knowing which class your retractable is will allow you to use the proper value (24” or 54”) in your calculation. An extra two-and-a-half feet of stopping distance is significant. Planning for a Class A retractable when you are actually using a Class B could easily mean the difference before a fall being arrested safely and serious injury to a worker.
To make it easy, ANSI suggests that these classes should be listed on all product labels (which should be able to endure the life of the component being marked). While there’s much more to the Z359.14-2012 standard, don’t let the A and B classifications themselves confound you; they are important, but simple. Now you know the difference. And, as a certain real American hero/toy used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”
In March, OSHA released a report detailing what they call the true cost of not protecting employees. This report goes far beyond the usual business case for safety that most of us are taught to make when we first assume a title that includes the word “safety”. In that business case, we are taught about direct versus indirect costs (remember the iceberg? Direct costs are the tip that you can see (medical costs and wages), and the indirect costs (like retraining, lost production, counseling, etc.) that amount to four times as much as the direct costs are hiding beneath the surface. So, when you first see this title, you couldn’t be blamed if you expected a re-hashing of that idea. I certainly did.
Not Quite What We Expected
Yet, delving into this report, it was clear that that wasn’t the angle OSHA was going for. They were looking far beyond that. In fact, they were looking at not what costs the employer bears, but what costs – what burdens – are borne by the injured employee and society as a whole. Sounds lofty, but the information is compelling.
The report starts where most reports on occupational health and safety begin: with the fact that thousands of workers are killed in the US each year and millions more are injured. This is not news. What is news is the fact that in a country whose states have been implementing worker’s compensation systems for decades, the injured employees, their families, and taxpayer-supported programs are still paying most of the costs. In fact, workers are bearing about 50% of the financial burden straight out of their pockets, while worker’s compensation only covers 21%.
Getting to the Heart of the Issue
The report goes on to tie this fact to income inequality.
The report goes on to tie this fact to income inequality. According to OSHA, these injuries occur more often to low-income earners (because they tend to have the more dangerous jobs) whose career advancements are, subsequently, hindered by their physical and/or emotional limitations. As a result, these same people can’t break free from a lower economic class because the financial burdens they are forced to absorb are too great. The report points to a study done in New Mexico that shows that injured workers earn 15% less over the ten years following their injuries than they would have if they hadn’t been injured…on average, $31,000.
All of this is attributed to a few things. First, it has become increasingly difficult to get the full payout due an injured worker due to changes in the states’ worker’s compensation systems (and that’s in instances where the system is actually being used – only 40% of eligible injured workers apply for the benefits). The reasoning for these changes probably depends on your political point of view with one side of the fence blaming greedy corporations sticking it to the little people while the other side would blame the need for tighter restrictions because of all of the fraud and abuse of the system. In reality, the truth – as always – is probably somewhere in between.
Also, the misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors as well as the vastly increased use of temporary workers has changed the work landscape so that companies are not responsible for providing worker’s compensation insurance. Add to this that these companies feel freed from the need to provide safe working conditions and/or training since these are not technically their employees and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
While it may be easy to turn a blind eye to this as something that doesn’t affect you, the reality is that it does. Those injured employees falling through the cracks of worker’s compensation insurance programs end up enrolling in SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and Medicare. The payer of those programs? You, the taxpayer.
Who is really being injured by workplace injuries?
The conclusion? More effort needs to be put into injury and illness prevention. There is no better solution than keeping these tragedies from happening in the first place and, despite 40 years of an obligation to provide a safe work environment, many companies still fail. The report suggests that worker’s compensation programs need to work to remove the roadblocks to proper pay as well. In the end, the report shows that the cost is great – not just to the employer as we are traditionally taught, but to the injured and the taxpayer.
Falls from height are still a primary killer when it comes to workplace fatalities. The rooftop is the most common area where general industry employees are exposed to a fall hazard. Roof access is not necessarily an everyday part of someone's job, so its easier to ignore the safety hazards that exist. Consider the following activities that take place on the roof:
- Maintenance and Repair of HVAC Equipment
- Servicing of Security and Surveillance Equipment
- Gutter Cleaning
- Snow Removal
- Window Washing Preparation
A business with a Safety First mindset will perform a hazard assessment in every area of their business, and the rooftop is no exception. Below are the primary areas to consider when auditing the safety of a rooftop. Of course, every roof has its own nuances, but these are the principal areas that will help to ensure people are kept safe when accessing the roof.
1. Access Points
The first thing to look for in your roof safety audit is how people access the roof. There are four common ways that people tend to access the roof:
- Roof Hatches
- Walk Out Doors
- Exterior Stairs and Ladders
Here are some common considerations for each of these areas.
- Are there railings around the roof hatch? When the hatch is open, it is a hole in the roof.
- Is the hatch dangerously close to a roof edge?
- Are there any trip hazards around walk-out doors?
- Are permanently attached ladders in good repair? The ladder should be rust free and securely attached to the wall.
- Are there self-closing gates on access points such as hatches and ladders?
- If people are accessing the roof at night, is proper lighting in place?
- Are access points properly secured? Ensure that access doors remain locked and that exterior stairs cannot be accessed by an unauthorized person.
2. Unprotected Edges and Open Sides
The roof edge is probably the most obvious fall hazard that exists on a roof. This is where people expect a hazard, but the following should be considered:
- Are there any changes in height (roof to roof) that are greater than four feet? If so, these need to be protected.
- Are the edges that are being worked around or walked past properly guarded?
- Are parapets that are shorter than 42" properly guarded?
- Are existing fall protection railings or fall arrest devices in proper working order?
- Is there toeboard in place to prevent tools from being kicked over the edge? Be sure to be familiar with when you need to use toeboard.
There are a number of different options for protecting a roof edge. The safest option is always eliminating the hazard completely. This can be done by installing complete perimeter protection with a roof guardrail. In many cases, this is not possible or practical.
If that is the case, apply spot protection by identifying the areas of the roof that pose direct hazards to employees and contractors. These areas are typically anywhere a roof edge is near a working or walking surface.
If a railing is not possible, horizontal life lines and personal fall protection can be used to provide fall protection while working near the roof edge.
Be sure to check out the pros and cons of every fall protection system before deciding which fall protection method should be used.
3. Walking Paths
When it comes to the roof, the shortest distance between two points may not be the safest! People typically want to go the fastest route from point A to point B. When considering rooftop safety, the A to B direct route may not be the safest option. It may be safer to direct someone along a marked route to keep them from walking close to a hazard.
- Are safe walking paths on the roof clearly demarcated? If you are in a climate that gets snow will people be able to discern the path when there is snow on the roof?
- Does the walking path have to cross any rooftop obstacles such as pipes or varying height roofs?
- Does the walking path get closer than 15' to an unprotected roof edge?
- Does the roof surface become especially slippery in certain kinds of weather?
- Are people required to walk on an uneven roof surface? (e.g. standing seam or rib roofs)
Properly demarcating a walkway and providing a level walking surface can significantly reduce the risk of falling
The walking path needs a risk assessment just as much as the area where work is being performed. If you are not sure what path employees and contractors are taking, look for footprints – you may be surprised where workers are walking on your roof.
4. Rooftop Equipment
People are accessing the roof for a reason. Most of the time, it is to access a piece of equipment. HVAC equipment, fans, sensors, and other roof top units are commonly located on the roof and are constantly in need of servicing and repair. You may be under the assumption that it is the contractors' responsibility to protect themselves while working on your roof, but OSHA and your lawyer will tell you that you also have a duty to protect. So even if your equipment is being serviced by a contractor, here are some important questions to ask about your rooftop equipment:
- What equipment needs to be accessed on the rooftop?
- Is any of the equipment within 15' of the roof edge? If so, OSHA requires that railing be present to protect the worker from a fall hazard.
- Is it possible to fall INTO or THROUGH the equipment?
- Does accessing the equipment pose a significant trip hazard?
- Is the equipment taller than 6'? If so, is the worker protected if they need to access the top of the equipment?
It may sound strange to think that you have openings in your roof. After all the primary function of the roof is to provide a covering from the rain and elements. If it has an opening, then its difficult for a roof to do its job! However, there are openings in the roof that many people do not consider until doing a roof safety audit.
- Are all skylights properly guarded? Contrary to what you might think, OSHA considers your skylight to be a hole in your roof!
- Are smoke vents properly guarded? Smoke vents are not necessarily made to be stepped on and carry the weight of an adult. These can be a dangerous hazard if not properly guarded. Your local fire marshal may require you to protect smoke vents in the open position to protect fire personnel accessing your roof in the case of a fire.
- Are roof hatches properly guarded? This one was mentioned in the access section as well. An open roof hatch is a genuine fall hazard.
- Are there smaller openings for tools or equipment to fall into? Its important that no one can be injured from a falling tool.
This rooftop safety audit has focused on fall hazards on the rooftop because they propose a significant threat to someone's life. There are other hazards that need to be considered as well when examining the rooftop.
- Hazardous Materials - Are there any hazardous materials that vent or collect on the roof surface?
- Weather Conditions - Different roof surfaces respond differently in varying conditions. It should be clearly communicated what the weather conditions must be in order to access the roof.
- Controlled Access - Who will be allowed to access the roof? Will people be accessing the roof alone? Is there a log in place to track the presence of people coming on and off the roof? Is there a radio check-in system to ensure that an accident has not occurred?
- Fall Protection Plan - A safety plan is not optional when accessing the roof? Do you have the required work at height safety policy that includes a rescue plan?
- Unique Situations - What hazards are unique to your rooftop?
This article is intended to be a helpful start to your rooftop safety audit. There will always be additional hazards that fall outside the scope of what has been written here. Be sure that a competent person is evaluating the safety of your rooftop. Our team is available for consultation and can provide further direction for your particular roof.
This document is available in an easy to print guide so you can distribute and present this information to members of your team.
Feel free to share your feedback or tap into our team for any questions you have about rooftop safety audits.
You’ve heard all the horror stories, right? OSHA comes into a factory or onto a construction site and things are such a mess they immediately shutdown all operations. Work stops. That steel beam being lifted into place by that crane? Leave it hanging. Those trucks full of concrete? Let them go to waste. Shut down that assembly line and kill the lights. The doors slam, chains go through the handles and a big, fat padlock gets slapped into place.
If you’ve heard anything like this, either your source is a bit of a storyteller or a really bad game of telephone has been occurring. The truth of the matter is that OSHA does not have the right to shut you down. Period. In fact, the OSH Act, in describing the enforcement measures that can be taken after an inspection, describes the following list:
- Issue a Citation
So why this pervading belief that OSHA can shut you down?
Well, it’s a pretty natural assumption that if a government agency is tasked with enforcing a regulation that they’d be able to stop a company that was in violation of that regulation. In reality, maybe work does stop when OSHA shows up, but not because they’ve shut anyone down. I have seen some companies, terrified of receiving a citation, actually tell everyone on their jobsite to stop working when OSHA showed up. This is pointless. OSHA can do their inspection over the course of days or weeks and there’s certainly no way a company is shutting down production for that long. Trust me, they can and will outlast you. Other times, and probably most frequently, OSHA requests that a company shut down something that the inspector deems to be imminently dangerous. Smart companies agree to the request.
Why Work with OSHA?
Because it’s certainly hard to plead ignorance when the government agency in charge of enforcement just told you that you’re doing something wrong and putting your employees in immediate danger, yet you refuse to do anything about it. While ‘pleading ignorance’ isn’t exactly a viable defense (ignorance of the law is not an exemption from the law), a refusal to stop the dangerous task in question certainly could bump you up from a Serious Violation to a Willful Violation (thereby bumping your citations from up to $7000 per person exposed to up to $70,000 per person exposed).And, notice that I said ‘the dangerous task in question’.
Even in this scenario, we’re talking about a task, not the entire jobsite. Should OSHA want to go to court to get an order to stop the work (yes, the courts are the only ones with the power to order you to shut down), they are going to have to show that the hazard presented an imminent danger that could not be solved through the normal channels of enforcement. This is not easy to do and, frankly, is time consuming. If the site in question is a construction site where things change on a daily basis, odds are the task in question is over before OSHA gets to see a judge.
I assure you, however, that if you’re reading this thinking, “Well, then it seems the best play is to refuse, have them get a court order, and finish in the meantime,” that forcing OSHA’s hand is not the best strategy. Just as a company could refuse OSHA entry to their jobsite without a warrant, it is not really the best plan. First of all, they will get the warrant and now you’ve gotten off to an adversarial start with a government agency in charge of enforcement. And let’s be honest, if you refused them entry – chances are there was something you were worried about them finding. Employees will be interviewed and you will not know what they were asked or what they responded. You cannot ask them. So, they will let OSHA know every complaint they have or every infraction they’ve seen, even if you managed to ‘clean it up’ before OSHA showed up with the warrant.
This is similar to what you could expect if you refused to listen to OSHA when they requested you shut down a task that they deemed to be imminently dangerous. Rather than have an inspector or OSHA office willing to work with you in any way, you’re now toe to toe. OSHA now has legitimate reasons to escalate your penalties and probably does not harbor the greatest of goodwill toward your organization. Whatever hole you were in before has been dug deeper.
Your best defense is to remain compliant with OSHA regulations and respond in a timely manner to any concerns or complaints employees may have. OSHA’s manpower is extremely low compared to the number of workplaces out there, therefore, having them randomly show up on your site is remote unless you are either a huge profile job or they begin to receive complaints.
Keep your employees happy and show them that you are genuinely concerned for their well-being and you increase your chances of staying in the clear. However, beyond that, make sure that you fully understand the OSHA inspection and citation process. What OSHA can do is enter any workplace under its jurisdiction without delay, during business hours or at other reasonable times, inspect in a reasonable manner within reasonable limits, all the processes, equipment, documentation, structures and environment, and interview employees and/or their agents. They do this through a very specific process that you need to know how to manage to reduce your risk of citation.
Perhaps worrying about OSHA coming in and shutting down your facility is the least of your worries. Review your processes and procedures now. Keep your workers safe. Listen to the advice of an OSHA inspector. But, whether you do any of these things or not, I assure you that no inspector is about to show up wielding chains and padlocks.
Whenever I deliver a training class to a group of workers for whom I’m also serving as a safety consultant, I explain that there are two things I need to do: 1) Keep them safe and 2) Keep the company compliant.
In that order.
The trick is that if I’m achieving the first one, I am almost always achieving the second one by default. This is a good place to begin because some workers are simply distrustful of safety professionals, whether because of a bad experience in the past or because they feel that safety professionals exist for no other reason than to save the company some money. It is important that they understand that their well-being comes first.
People responsible for safety on a jobsite or at a facility approach it from all different perspectives, but they can almost always be broken down into three groups: Safety-First, Compliance-First, or Cost-First. Notice, I said “people responsible for safety”, not “safety professionals”. That was intentional. Not everybody who is made responsible for safety on a jobsite is a safety professional. I would be hard pressed to find a safety professional that falls into the third group: Cost-First. While most good safety professionals realize that cost is important and that we need to find ways to be safe and compliant that are not budget-busting, cost is almost never their first consideration.
This has been the mantra of safety professionals and safety-oriented organizations for years now, hasn’t it? But, let’s be honest. It’s idealistic and often not the least bit realistic. We’d love to believe that when it comes to safety, all else can be set aside, but the reality of the situation is that companies still need to be profitable. No profit, no company. No company, no work. No work, no jobs. Yet, some safety professionals will still come in with the attitude of, “I don’t want to hear about budgets or schedules, this is what needs to be done.”
The fact of the matter is that there are often multiple ways to keep people safe and, as safety professionals, we should be looking to find ways that achieve safety, achieve compliance, don’t break the bank, don’t compromise the quality of the work, and don’t create additional time expenditures that are going to throw the project schedule off-track. I’m not suggesting somebody should compromise the safety and well-being of the workers, but they should compromise on the method that is agreed upon, should compromise be needed.
For instance, perhaps a safety professional does not trust his roofers to tie-off properly to the fall protection carts on the roof. In this particular professional’s mind, the only fully safe way to work on a roof is to make sure the entire roof – or at least the work area – is enclosed in railings. Maybe the safety professional is right. Rails really do provide protection for everyone and, once installed, they’re hard to screw up. However, does the contractor own these rails? If not, that could be a huge expenditure not figured into their budget while there is a viable means of safety and compliance already available. Are there aspects of the work that cannot be done with rails in place? If so, it kind of defeats the purpose of using the rails instead of the carts in the first place. Meanwhile, putting the rails up, taking them down, and putting them up again could cost unnecessary time and manpower. Sure, maybe sticking with the carts is going to involve some re-training and additional oversight on the roof, but it can be done. We need to realize that we are working as a team. The more we do that, the more cooperation we get.
At some point or other, you’ve most likely worked with a safety professional who only did things “By the Book”. Maybe that guy is you…or used to be. While being a stickler for the rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially when you’re dealing with people’s lives – what makes it a problem is that the rules themselves are fairly vague. If they weren’t, OSHA wouldn’t need to constantly publish Letters of Interpretation. Sometimes the wording of a regulation just doesn’t lay out what you wish it would lay out, other times new technology comes along that makes a regulation obsolete. Either way, trying to do things “By the Book” may not be the safest way to go. And, due to the ambiguities in the regulatory text, when somebody states that this one way is the way to do something, it raises a red flag for me. How well does this person know the regulations or, more importantly, the intent behind the regulations?
Some regulations still haven’t been updated in forty years. Are we to believe that those regulations still specifically tell us the only ways to perform work safely? I once had an argument with another safety professional who my company was working for at the time. He wanted our oxygen and acetylene bottles taken off the carts and put back in storage each and every night, despite the fact that we were using them again first thing in the morning. We went back and forth on this and his argument was that “the book” said the bottles need to go in storage and there was no room for debate. No room for debate, that is, until I handed him OSHA’s Letter of Interpretation saying that the organization recognized the inherent danger in frequently moving and capping/uncapping these bottles, so they allowed a 24-hr period for which the bottles could be considered “ready-for-use” and remain on the cart with the gauges on. No matter how much we may have argued the danger, until that letter was presented there was no discussion allowed to determine if there was a safer way of dealing with the bottles.
Now, granted, this is a pretty clear-cut case in which there was a right way and a wrong way, without the letter of interpretation to allow for something different, but some situations are not quite as black-and-white and require creativity. A safety committee, engineer, or other interested party may come up with something that has not been thought of before. If this idea meets the criteria of keeping the workers safe, it then falls on the shoulders of the safety professional to take the agreed-upon solution and go back to the regulation to make sure it complies with the letter of the law.
As touched upon earlier, this approach seems to come more into play when somebody on the production side of an organization is put in charge of safety. Let’s face it, when your job has been to get something done, get it done well, and get it done on time, worrying about the method and how safe it is or is not for your workers may not come naturally. Perhaps there were always other people to worry about that, or maybe there was never anybody at all, but either way, it’s often not a perspective production personnel are trained to approach from. In this approach, everything is dictated by the bottom line. An inferior safety product may be purchased simply because it costs less, if a safety product is purchased at all. The best solution is rarely chosen if it is not also the cheapest solution. This is the polar opposite of the Safety-First professional.
Do these people want to hurt the workers? No. I don’t believe there’s anybody out there that wants to do that. Many just don’t believe that accidents are going to happen to them. Either they’re just going to be working unsafely for a brief period of time or they believe their workforce is so good at what they do that they won’t make any mistakes. Some even may believe that safety is over-hyped, that the regulations and requirements exist only to create more paperwork for their company. Regardless of why they do it, safety is not made a priority.
Obviously the best approach is a combination of all three of these ‘cultures’. A good safety professional – or somebody given the authority over safety on a jobsite – should be aiming to keep the safety and well-being of their employees in mind, first and foremost, however this should be done in a way that looks at all of the options available and determines which is best and doesn’t break the bank.
There is one quick and simple answer to the question, “When is a warning line sufficient fall protection?”
To be clear, that does not mean that a warning line does not have its applications or that it does not, at times, achieve regulatory compliance, but it certainly will never serve as fall protection. The best a warning line system is going to do is keep you in an area that prevents you from being exposed to a fall – if set up properly. The problem is that warning lines are not always set up properly. Sometimes, they are placed directly at the edge of a building. Should somebody stumble, there’s nothing a warning line at the edge of the building is going to do to stop them from falling.
Proper Warning Line Practices
Let’s focus on when a warning line is acceptable and how it should be properly set up to eliminate fall exposure. Warning lines are most often associated with roof work. That is because, for the most part, that’s where their use is allowed – specifically low-slope roofs (4 to 12 or less, vertical to horizontal). This does not mean HVAC guys working on a roof or electricians or other maintenance personnel, this means roofing work: the actual laying, tearing up, or repairing of roof membrane.
For all other type of work that happens to take place on a roof, proper fall arrest or prevention must be utilized – as far as the regulations are concerned. However, as safety professionals, it is important to go beyond the regulations to ensure that other criteria have not been established by letters of interpretation. In this instance, some have. The most recent can be found here: Use of a warning line instead of conventional fall protection; Part 1926 Subpart M.
This letter reiterates the fact that only roofers can utilize a combination of warning line and safety monitor (to be discussed further below). All others, even in situations where they may be working alongside roofers, must use conventional fall protection or prevention means. OSHA states that no distance from the edge is a “safe” distance, however, they will consider a warning line for work other than roofing work a de minimis violation if:
- It meets all of the requirements of 1926.502(f)(2)
- It is set 15’ from the edge
- No work is to take place between the warning line and the roof edge, and
- A work rule is established to ensure nobody leaves the confines of the warning line
The Necessity of the Safety Monitor
Now that we’ve clarified the exception to the rule, let’s look at the rule itself. A warning line is acceptable in certain roofing situations on low slope roofs. One of the most overlooked parts of this regulations is, in my experience, that a warning line alone is unacceptable. It must be used in conjunction with a safety monitor, rails, nets, or personal fall arrest systems. The regulations actually allow for the use of only a safety monitor in one situation (a roof 50-feet or less in width) but make no allowance for the use of warning lines alone. Even when a company remembers to include a safety monitor, the monitor is often unacceptable because they are doing other work that takes them away from their monitor duties or they cannot readily communicate with or see everybody on the roof. Companies sometimes find it very difficult to pay a person to “do nothing”, but as a safety professional it is important to get that company to understand that not only are they required to do it, but that the worker is actually (or SHOULD actually be) doing something: actively monitoring the workers for unsafe situations.
In addition, warning lines must be set up at least 6’ from the edge on all sides of the work. Should mechanical equipment be in use, then the line must be 10’ from the edge which is perpendicular to the equipment’s line of travel. In other words, if your equipment is heading toward an edge, the line must be 10’ back from that edge.
Working Beyond the Line
If you’ve got adjacent support areas that are not directly inside your work area, they must be connected to your work area by a path made of two warning lines. At no time should your workers be walking on a roof with no warning line between them and an edge, unless they are the workers specifically designated to work between the warning line and the edge. At one time, it simply may have been acceptable to say that there was no way a worker performing roofing work at the edge of a roof could have fall protection, but there is so much technology available today that this is often not the case. There are free-standing rails, parapet clamp rails, weighted stands, and fall protection carts available that should be put into use whenever possible. Of course, not all situations have a solution, which is why the regulation allows for a roofing worker to work outside of the warning line without any means of fall protection.
Warning Line Criteria
Your warning line, itself, must also meet certain criteria. You cannot just spray-paint a line on the ground, for instance. A warning line must consist of ropes, wires, or chains with supporting stanchions. The line must be flagged with high visibility material every 6 feet or less and must remain completely between 34” and 39” from the walking/working surface. The stanchions must be able to withstand being tipped by 16 lbs. of pressure 30” off the walking/working surface and the line must have a minimum tensile strength of 500 lbs. The line must also be attached in such a way that pulling it in one section does not affect other sections.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider, yet so many times a warning line is thrown up as a dog-and-pony show. Perhaps these contractors don’t really understand the rules. Perhaps they do, but feel that nobody is going to bother to come up to check on their setup. Regardless of the reason, their employees are in an equal and very real amount of danger.
This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? For years, many of us in the industry watched as prizes were awarded to workers based on safety performance. Sometimes this meant a group lunch or a t-shirt, but other times it was something as big as a truck or boat being given away. This sounds great - generous even – but is it doing more harm than good?
What is the Issue?
The general concern with safety incentive programs is that while it may make workers think twice about doing something unsafe, it may also have the unintended (we hope) consequence of making workers hide injuries. Let’s face it: who wants to be eliminated from winning that boat because they sliced their finger open and needed a couple of stitches when that can easily be fixed by a quick visit to the emergency room and a little white lie that you cut yourself at home? Who wants to be the guy that gets an entire crew eliminated from the running because they broke a toe or two and needed to stay off their feet?
What does OSHA Say?
This question has been debated ad nauseum among safety professionals, but before we approach this from their point of view, let’s first take a look at what OSHA has to say about it. According to a March 12, 2012 memo released to the agency’s regional administrators (https://www.osha.gov/as/opa/whistleblowermemo.html), OSHA feels that while most incentive programs have good intention, they often create the unintended consequences mentioned above. Under point #4, the memo states:
Finally, some employers establish programs that unintentionally or intentionally provide employees an incentive to not report injuries. For example, an employer might enter all employees who have not been injured in the previous year in a drawing to win a prize, or a team of employees might be awarded a bonus if no one from the team is injured over some period of time. Such programs might be well-intentioned efforts by employers to encourage their workers to use safe practices. However, there are better ways to encourage safe work practices, such as incentives that promote worker participation in safety-related activities, such as identifying hazards or participating in investigations of injuries, incidents or "near misses".
The point of this portion of the memo is that if your employee feels pressured to not report an injury or illness because of your particular incentive program, it could be considered retaliation under whistleblower protection statutes (in other words, if you report an injury, you don’t get a bonus). OSHA does allow, in this memo, that a company would need to take into consideration whether the incentive award was or was not substantial enough to dissuade an employee from reporting in order to determine if it falls into this retaliation category.
In the end, OSHA’s stance is gray, and therefore, so is the answer to this question. OSHA does not come out and prohibit safety incentives. In fact, they state in the memo that they appreciate employers attempting to use safety as a performance metric, but they recognize the inherent danger in such a program.
To Incentivize or Not to Incentivize, That is the Question
Since OSHA does not ban incentive programs, you – as an employer – need to decide if having one is right for you and, if so, how it should be run. Some people that I’ve discussed this with simply do not believe in safety incentives. Their belief is that you already have two built in incentives:
- You are going home healthy and unharmed.
- Your paycheck.
Is Safety Optional?
Number two is interesting in that it infers that incentive programs propagate the belief that safety is optional; that safe work practices are to be followed only if you want to get a little extra something from your employer. This is most likely not the message you are trying to get across. By saying that a worker’s paycheck is their incentive, you are making the point that safety is part of your employee’s job, and it is expected of them just as much as you expect them to be at work on time and to perform quality work.
Still, many companies feel they need that extra something to get their workers to follow what may sometimes be time consuming or cumbersome rules. The key is to find a balance. A reward that is too large could cause employees to hide injuries while a reward too small could have no positive effect. A reward for injury-free work may need to be balanced by an equal punishment for failure to report. This, however, could also lead to murky waters. A punishment for failure to report could easily be twisted to appear as a punishment for getting hurt and you’re back in the realm of ‘retaliation’.
Focus on Leading Indicators
Perhaps the best route to take is one that OSHA recognizes in their memo and one many safety professionals struggle with: leading indicators. For years, the focus of incentive programs or recognition awards has been on trailing indicators: recordable or lost time injuries, OSHA incident rates, and similar metrics. This measures employees after the fact, rather than trying to encourage them to be proactive. Some leading indicators include participation in incident investigations, number of near miss reports, and training sessions attended. The catch here is that:
- You need incidents to have incident investigations in which to be involved.
- You need near misses in order to report them.
- Sometimes production schedules don’t allow for attending training sessions above and beyond what is already required.
These indicators may be a good starting off point, but a program needs to be developed to effectively utilize them. Can it be successful? Sure, but so can an incentive program using trailing indicators when developed properly.
A Properly Developed Program
And that’s where the key lies: a properly developed program. Should safety be incentivized? If you and your company are willing to put the time and resources into developing an effective program that is beneficial to the well-being of your employees yet doesn’t have negative unintended consequences, yes! If not, then avoid incentives because they’ll be nothing more than a dog-and-pony show that not only may not work, but may actually put your employees in harm’s way.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Whether it’s working from a boom lift, walking steel, standing on an elevated order picker, or any of the myriad other reasons you may be working at heights, “tying off” will do you no good if your personal fall arrest system allows you to strike the lower level before it stops your fall. This may sound like common sense, but if working in this field has taught me anything, it’s that “common” sense isn’t as common as we’d like to believe.
While the problem often boils down to a lack of training or solutions developed without the help of a Competent Person, the end result of a fall event in which there was a failure to calculate proper fall distance is always the same: injury or death. Many workers do not fully understand how a Personal Fall Arrest System (PFAS) works and therefore feel that simply “tying off” is their one-size-fits-all solution to safe, compliant work at heights. Unfortunately, this is not true. In many instances, the length of the harness, lanyard, and anchor point, in addition to the length of the user’s body is enough to strike a lower level. So how do you prevent this? By making sure you understand the factors that go into calculating fall distance and ensuring you allow sufficient room for the fall to occur (clearance).
If this clearance is not available (from anchor point to lower level), then you must come up with an alternate fall protection or fall prevention solution.
Length of Lanyard and Harness
To an untrained worker, having a 6’ lanyard may seem sufficient while working at a height of 10’ or 12’, but they often don’t know, or forget, about the deceleration device. When a deceleration device is deployed, it adds an additional 3.5’ to the length of your lanyard. Whether it’s a rip-stitch pack, a glue pack, or the bungee style lanyards, you must add this 3.5 feet to the initial 6’. In addition, a harness could stretch so that the anchor point, while initially positioned properly between the shoulder blades, ends up a foot or more above the worker’s head after a fall.
Total Length to Consider: 10.5’
Length of the User’s Body
This one is simple, but perhaps the most often forgotten when calculating fall distance. It is necessary to take into account the length of the user’s body below the D-ring. A PFAS that stops the user at 12’ is of no use when the lower level is 14’ away, unless the user is less than 2’ tall. I’d venture to say that this is an unlikely scenario. On average, it is usually safe to consider approximately 5’ feet for this distance. Remember, however, that people on more extreme sides of the height spectrum could warrant different consideration.
Total Length to Consider: 5’ (on average)
Length of Anchorage Point Connector – Including Sag
A fixed, solid anchor point is easy to calculate because the only distance to add is the length of your snap hook. However, when dealing with an anchor like a horizontal lifeline, things get more complicated. Horizontal lifelines sag, both as part of initial design and additionally during a fall event. This sag needs to be taken into consideration. Figuring out the sag in design could be as simple as pulling the lifeline tight to see what the distance is, but sag from a fall is not as easy to figure. The forces placed on the lifeline are going to pull the line farther than you can when checking the design sag. Estimates I’ve gathered seem to range from 3% of the total length of a high tension line to 15% of the length of a line which uses shock absorbers. This can be significant, especially for lines that have long, uninterrupted length to allow for continuous fall protection during movement. The longer the span, the more sag you’ll have. Your safest bet is to have an engineer calculate the sag resulting from a fall based on the maximum number of people you intend to have tied-off to the lifeline at any one given time. Short of that, you may want to consider shortening your spans and using double lanyards to achieve 100% fall protection. Either way, your sag needs to be figured in.
Total Length to Consider: 3-15% of the length of line, depending on the system’s design for a horizontal lifeline. Length of the snap hook for a fixed, solid anchor
This is exactly what it states: a safety factor. If the total length of my PFAS, including sag and body length is 16’, I certainly don’t want to use it in a situation where my clearance is 16’. I want to build in a safety factor in case something doesn’t go exactly as calculated. The conventional wisdom on this safety factor is an additional 3’, which brings our total length of PFAS including body length to 18.5’ (without sag).
Now think back to your projects, your facility, or work you’ve observed. How many times did you see a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device used with a clearance of less than 18.5’? Often? Do you think those workers knew the danger they were in but chose to do it anyway? Perhaps, but more likely than not, they were never trained in calculating fall distance and had no idea what was required. Calculating fall distance is not only a good idea, it is critical. Use PFAS only where you have the necessary clearance and where that clearance is not available, find an alternative. It would be tragic to have a worker suffer an injury when both you and the worker thought you were doing the right thing.