Little-Known Ways to Reduce the Impact of a Fall
Regardless of how much effort OSHA, the EHS industry and employers put into fall prevention, falls continue to occur. In a perfect world, all efforts to prevent falls would be 100% successful, but it’s not a perfect world. Failure to take measures to reduce the impact of an actual fall is like refusing to learn CPR because we teach our employees to eat well and exercise. Sometimes, employee behavior, unexpected conditions, or even forces of nature can derail what was believed to be a “fool-proof” prevention plan.
Fall arrest, done improperly, could still have a severe if not deadly impact on personnel. Even if an employee is prevented from contacting the lower level, a harness that doesn’t fit properly or allowance of too great a freefall can result in internal injuries. Anchor point placement or improper training could result in fall protection being used in a way that allows for secondary injuries. Simply arresting the fall isn’t enough. Employers need to ensure that in doing so, they are not exposing their employees to new hazards.
Proper Fitting of a Harness
Q: When is a Harness not a Harness?
A: When it doesn’t fit properly.
Ok, admittedly, it’s a terrible joke. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense as a joke, but that’s a good thing because an improperly adjusted or incorrectly sized harness is a serious problem.
Each time a worker puts their harness on, they are supposed to:
- Adjust the harness to ensure that the D-ring is between their shoulder blades
- Ensure the chest strap is actually across their chest
- Make sure that leg straps have enough room in them to fit a flat hand between the strap and the leg, but not enough room to fit a fist.
- If they don’t do these things, the harness may not protect them completely.
For example, loose leg straps could shoot upward fast enough and hard enough during the fall arrest to cause internal damage, including the rupturing of certain parts of the male genitalia. Or, if the harness is worn in such a way that the D-ring or chest strap is loose and sagging, a head first fall could result in the worker slipping right out (as I’ve heard it described, like a sausage squeezed out of its casing). This, of course, defeats the purpose of the personal fall arrest system and could result in a fatality as if the PFAS had not even been used in the first place.
Proper Calculation of Fall Distance
Similarly, if the chosen harness is the wrong size for the worker, it will be impossible for them to adjust it as noted above. Whether the D-ring, chest strap, and leg straps are not in the proper location because of a poor adjustment or because of a harness that is too big or too small does not matter; the results will be the same.
Considering fall distance is another major way to reduce the impact of a fall. No PFAS is worth a thing, if it doesn’t keep you from contacting the lower level. Your fall protection Competent Person needs to properly calculate fall clearance in order to keep your workers safe.
Go, right now, and ask your Competent Person how they calculate fall clearance.
If they cannot immediately answer you, they require further training and should not be your Competent Person. However, simply calculating your clearance isn’t the only lanyard hazard you could encounter. Swing is one that, while maybe not as common, could certainly be as dangerous.
Understand Swing Fall Hazards
Here’s how swing works: Your employee dons their harness and lanyard, then secures themselves to their anchor point. So far, so good. Your employee, though, is under the false impression that their retractable lanyard will act like a seatbelt that’s been released and, in the case of a fall, pull the lanyard back into the casing. What actually happens is the lanyard locks quickly (if being used properly), but does not retract because it’s now got the weight of the employee on it. If this employee had played out 20’ of line, as an example, while walking along the edge of a platform, when they fall, they still have 20’ feet of line. This means their free fall distance will be more than 6’ (potentially causing internal injuries) and the moment the lanyard does catch, the employee will swing back toward the anchor like a pendulum. This can be dangerous, if not deadly because most likely there is some form of steel support, wall, or other structure beneath whatever platform the employee was just on and it’s entirely possible the employee could swing into it at full speed. For this reason, it is extremely important to select the correct location for your anchor point and train employees how far they are allowed to travel laterally.
Location of the Anchor Point
Speaking of selecting the proper anchor point, another way to reduce the impact of a fall is to make sure you’re selecting an anchor point higher than the user’s D-ring. While this is directly related to fall clearance and free-fall distance as mentioned above, it is important to reiterate. I once witnessed the aftermath of a fall in which a construction worker had chosen an anchor point at his feet on the exterior of a high rise. There were plenty of anchor points above his head, but he secured his retractable near his feet. When he fell head first, it took the retractable enough time to engage so that he got wedged behind the curtain wall of the building, causing long-term, if not permanent, damage to his hips, back, and legs. Had he tied off above his head, or at least above his D-ring, the retractable would not have allowed him to fall through the hole head-first and would have engaged when his feet were still within a couple of feet of the platform he had been working on. While his life was saved, he still suffers from the impact of that fall to this day.
Once you’ve taken these precautions, everything should be good…unless you leave your employee hanging for too long. Suspension trauma is a very real and very serious problem. One of the most forgotten aspects of a PFAS is a rescue plan. How are you getting your employee down from where they are hanging? This is not something that can be considered after-the-fact because there is not much time before your employee has the potential for deadly consequences. Know how you are going to retrieve your employees in the event of a fall, make sure your employees are trained, and if rescue involves a third-party, ensure that they are able and available to make the rescue.
These reasons alone are enough to stop and consider your method of fall protection. Do you have another option that can eliminate the fall in the first place? Is a Personal Fall Arrest System really your only option? Preventing the fall in the first place is and always will be the best way to keep your employees free from harm . Guardrails and travel limiting lanyards that don’t allow employees to reach and fall off an edge should be considered prior to even retractable lanyards (again, while you’re not falling as far as you would with a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device, you’re still falling), but if you must go with a PFAS, remember that falls can and do happen. Limit the impact so that your employees not only survive, but come away unharmed.