10 Safety Tips for Working at Heights in 2020
Whether you work at heights every day or just once in a while, your safety focus during those times is of utmost importance. It takes one mistake to turn a routine task into a serious injury or fatality. You must be prepared to protect your employees each and every time they could be exposed to a fall hazard.
What is Working at Height?
Working at height refers to any work where a person could potentially fall and injure themselves. It could be from a ladder, a roof’s edge, through an opening on the floor, even a loading dock can be working at height. In general industry, fall protection is required by OSHA for any height change of 4 feet or more. Here are ten safety tips to help mitigate the risk of working at height.
1. Use Railing
When you can, use railing. Railing is a form of Passive protection, the easiest and most recommended way to keep your workers safe while achieving compliance. There's no training or extra equipment needed because there's nothing that they need to actually do to keep themselves safe (other than stay within the rail). There are railing system for almost every style of rooftop such as non-penetrating railing, parapet mounted railing, metal roof railing, and more. Regardless of which type you use, once in place, you’ll find rails to be the easiest fall protection system to use.
2. Select the Proper PPE
If you’re going to use Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS), you need to ensure you’re choosing the proper equipment. All full-body harnesses that meet ANSI standards will perform the same, despite their cost. However, that price differential can get you something extra. Sure, sometimes it’s just a name, but other times its functionality that you’re gaining or sacrificing, such as extra D-rings, fireproof material, or arc-safe design. Sometimes, a more expensive harness costs more simply because it’s been made to be more comfortable.
Do your research and determine what you really need. If you have workers welding at heights, then a standard nylon harness probably won’t have the heat protection you need; Kevlar might be the best option. Comfort is important, but the main concern has to be the ability to adjust the harness so it fits the user properly, ensuring it works as designed.
Lanyards need to be properly selected as well. Depending on the height at which you are working, a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device may not protect your worker. Instead, a retractable lanyard might be necessary. Each situation is different, so you need to evaluate your working conditions and the task to be performed in order to give your employees something that will actually protect them.
3. Inspect Your PPE
Great. You’ve got the equipment you need to ensure a protected work environment. That won’t matter if the systems are worn to the point that they fail. Harnesses and lanyards need to be inspected annually, if not more frequently, by a competent person (one with the knowledge to recognize the hazard AND the authority to correct it). However, PPE should be inspected by the user prior to every use. It’s important that anyone who might be using the devices understands what they’re looking for, what is acceptable or not, and the steps to take should there be an issue. A pre-use check doesn’t have to take a lot of time but needs to be thorough. This step could be the difference between life and death.
4. Ensure You Understand Fall Distance
You can wear all the fall protection equipment in the world, but if it fails to engage before you hit something, it’s pointless. This may sound like a "common sense" statement, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to get this part wrong. It is not unusual to go onto a construction site or observe a maintenance crew in a plant and see a worker at 10-12’ off the ground wearing a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device. While at first glance you might think that it should work, there are a number of reasons why it won’t.
First, you have to add 3.5’ of distance to account for the deployment of your deceleration device. Already that means the lanyard is equal to a 9.5’ drop. Unless you are a 6” tall person, this is some pretty bad news. Your actual fall distance needs to not only include the length of your lanyard when deployed but also your body length below the D-ring AND any sag in your harness and anchor system. Count on a good 18.5’ minimum before you’re able to use a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device. Correctly calculate the minimum distance for fall clearance before you need to use the system.
5. Select an Acceptable Anchor Point
By this point, you might be realizing that there are a lot of factors involved when it comes to fall safety, especially PPE. Well, we’re just getting into it. What good is the right harness and lanyard set up if the anchor point won’t hold the load? The answer is none.
What constitutes an acceptable anchor point? It’s not a PVC pipe. Nor is it a decorative piece of steel on the roof. An anchor point is only acceptable if:
- it’s designed and approved by a professional engineer that has calculated the expected loads or
- it can clearly handle a load of 5,000 pounds.
Many fixtures are not going to withstand those forces. Structural steel using a proper beam clamp? Sure. A manufactured roofing cart or anchor? Sure, if it’s installed properly.
To see an example of a compliant, pre-engineered, and easy to install anchor point, take a look at the Weightanka deadweight anchor.
6. Use the Proper Equipment for Working at Heights (Scaffold vs Lift vs Ladder)
Just as harnesses are not one-size-fits-all, neither are fall protection solutions. In some situations, a scaffold is going to be your best solution to work at heights. This might be for painting a house or washing low-level windows. If so, you’ll probably be able to equip the scaffold with railing, making your fall protection much easier to address. Other times, scaffolds will be infeasible and you’ll find yourself on a lift. Depending on the type of lift, you may or may not need to wear a harness and lanyard (such as when using a scissor lift). Still other times, you’ll be using a ladder, at which point the requirements for fall protection become trickier. We’ll talk about that further down. Portable, durable scaffolding can replace work from a ladder, like the Easi-Dec system.
In the end, it’s important to recognize your situation and what type of elevation system is required, whether that be a ladder, scaffold, lift, or any other solution.
7. Ensure Proper Use of Lifts
There are many ways in which something can go wrong when operating a lift, so I won’t get into the actual operation here. However, we do need to discuss fall protection in regards to lifts. One thing that gets missed quite often is that any person in a boom lift, at any time or height, must be properly tied-off.
"Properly tied-off" not only means that they need to be secured to the engineered anchor point designed for the lift, but it means that they can’t wrap their lanyard around the rails and they need to have a lanyard that is actually going to protect them at the height at which they are working (see fall distance above). With scissor lifts, things are a little different. While the site you are working on or the owner of the facility/project may require you to tie-off on a scissor lift, there is no regulatory requirement to do so. However, the moment you forget to close your gate or secure your chain, you are no longer protected by the rails and are now in a fall protection violation. It’s that simple. Also, keep your feet planted firmly on the platform. Both of them.
8. Use Ladders Properly
Don’t just assume that because you have a ladder at home, you know what you’re doing. You know what they say about assuming? It gets people injured. Ladders lie at the source of many industrial and workplace accidents simply because we take their use for granted. Ladders are familiar. You use them to hang your Christmas lights, paint the living room, change that annoying hard to reach high-hat bulb, and clean your gutters. We use them so often that we must know what we’re doing because we’ve never gotten hurt before, right? Ladders are dangerous. When improperly used, they’re REALLY dangerous. Before using a ladder, consider whether or not they are the best solution for the task. Then make sure your employees are trained to properly use a ladder. It’s not as simple as you might think. For safe ladder handling, there are three main concepts to consider.
- Have a 3’ extension of the ladder past the level to which you are climbing.
- Have a 4:1 ratio of rise and run.
- Basically, for every four feet high the ladder rises, place the base of the ladder one foot away from the structure.
- Two legs, one hand. Two hands, one leg. If you think about it, this means you do not carry something such as a bucket up or down a ladder. This would force you to break the three-point rule. Find another means like pulling it up by a rope after transitioning or holding smaller items in a belt or pocket.
Do these things and you’ll have a great start to a secure extension ladder experience.
As for a step-ladder, you might think it’s common sense to use it correctly. You’d be surprised how many people confuse the sticker that says, “Don’t stand on this step or above” to mean that you can stand on that step! Provide your employees with proper training, even if it might seem like common sense.
For fixed ladders over 24’ high, you will want to ensure that your workers are using a ladder safety system, which includes a lanyard, harness, and a continuous vertical lifeline (cable or rigid rail) that spans the height of the ladders. Cages are no longer a proper means of fall protection. And that’s just the climb. Don’t forget the transition at the top. Make sure that it is protected by a ladder safety gate and premier fall protection for a secure, safe experience.
9. When and Where You Need Fall Protection
At this point, you know a thing or two about different safety systems and have a sense of the best practices for how to use them. But where do you actually need to implement these systems? Let’s briefly break down what someone could study for a year and still not fully understand.
There are three factors to think about when considering required fall safety systems: infrequent, temporary, and location.
If a worker is “infrequently” performing a job at height, they are not performing it more than once a month, or only as needed (e.g. equipment repairs).
If the job being performed is “temporary” then it generally takes less than 2 hours to complete.
Now, the location is a bit more complex but nothing too difficult. OSHA has 3 different distances from a fall hazard.
- Within 6’ of a fall hazard.
- Between 6’ and 15’ from a fall hazard.
- 15’ or more from a fall hazard.
Now that those three factors are clear, we can define generally when and where safety systems are required. Within 6’ of a fall hazard? Fall protection is always required. Doesn’t matter if it’s temporary or infrequent, you need to have a system in place.
6’ to 15’? If the work is temporary and infrequent, you can have either fall protection or a designated working area that’s clearly defined. Either/or? You have to have fall protection.
15’ and beyond? You need to have fall protection or a designated area if doing temporary or infrequent but if it's both, you only need administrative controls that instruct your employees to keep that distance when working at height.
10. Train, Train, Train
It’s been mentioned in various paragraphs above, but it can’t be stressed enough. If you want your employees to work safely at heights, they must be properly trained. Period. Not only is training required by law, but there is just too much room for error and confusion when it comes to a person trying to protect themselves at height without proper knowledge. Falls are the leading killer in construction year after year. But, it’s not just in construction. Many people in various other industries die from fall accidents as well. Arm your employees with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.
Working safely at heights does not come by chance. It is not something you luck your way into. Working safely at heights takes preparation, education, and determination. When it comes to fall protection, you can’t have too much information.