3M Managing Director Michael Biddle discusses in this article the importance of using the right fall protection equipment the right way at worksites.

The danger of falling at height is real, and can bring devastating consequences. In Australia over the eight-year period between 1st July 2003 to 30th June 2011, 232 workers were killed following a fall from height, which represents 11% of all fatalities recorded in the period. The leading cause of worker fatalities on construction sites is falls, accounting for 37% off all deaths. Regardless of industry, the impact on the health of workers sustaining falls is significant. In 2011 alone, 7730 claims for serious injury were lodged due to a fall from height. Additionally, a typical fall-related claim in 2011 involved 6.2 weeks off work, which is considerably longer than the 4.4 weeks for all serious injury claims.

Fatal falls are often the result of a failure to follow workplace safety procedures, a lack of proper safety gear to perform the job, or the misunderstanding or misuse of equipment. The reality is that the effectiveness of fall prevention and protection equipment, no matter how durable or reliable, is compromised when workers don’t use products correctly.

When to use fall protection

Where buildings or structures are in place and maintenance activities are required to be undertaken, safe means or systems of access may already be available; for example, the use of parapet walls on commercial buildings, combined with walkways and guardrails complying with AS1657. Where there are no alternative practical means of access, fall protection equipment may be required.

To ensure the safety of their at-height teams, companies need to get serious about fall protection equipment and learn what systems and components are ideal for each job. Safety gear is not one-size-fits-all, nor is it one-product-fits-all-applications. Different scenarios require different equipment. Along with providing the best job-specific equipment, companies also need to ensure their workers are knowledgeable about the products they use so that their safety is maintained.

Choosing fall protection equipment

Fall protection equipment must be purchased to suit the specific application.

1. Fall arrest

If there is any risk that a worker may fall from an elevated position, a fall arrest system is required. Fall arrest systems only come into service when an actual fall occurs; in other words, the device is designed to arrest a fall in progress. A typical fall arrest system is composed of a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point, and a means of rescue.

2. Work positioning/ restraint technique

A positioning system holds the worker in place while keeping his or her hands free to work, whereas a restraint technique system allows a worker to egress towards an edge but not fall. It’s important to remember that under AS/NZS1891.4, while a positioning system is not specifically designed to arrest a fall, all of the equipment used to create the work position must be rated for fall arrest. This addresses the possibility that a person utilising work positioning equipment may have a change in their environment that moves their circumstance from work positioning to fall arrest and therefore will need protection following a free fall. Such a circumstance might be the collapse of a balcony, a fall through a skylight when traversing a roof or any other similar event.

3. Suspension

Suspension equipment lowers and supports the worker while providing a hands-free work environment. A suspension system’s components are also not required to arrest a free fall, so it’s crucial to use a backup fall arrest system in conjunction with a suspension system in the event the circumstances change.

4. Rescue/ retrieval

A very important component of a fall protection system, retrieval equipment is needed to rescue or remove a worker in the event of a fall and bring them to a safe level. This could be either a self-rescue or a peer-rescue, depending on the particular situation. Such devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive pre-engineered rescue systems. Choosing the right descent and rescue equipment depends on the jobsite and the task being performed.

Training: A vital tool to a safer workplace

Formal training is crucial for any person who performs work at height. Without such training, workers may not fully comprehend the severe consequences of a fall, including the possibility of serious injury or death.

Until workers actually see that fall protection equipment can be comfortable and easy to use, they may avoid using it altogether. Others might be embarrassed to ask about the proper way to use the equipment, leading to incorrect use, which will ultimately decrease the effectiveness, comfort level and usability of the equipment. Therefore, it’s important to instil the value of fall protection training within the workforce.

All employers should provide training programs tailored to their specific job tasks and environment. Training sessions can cover a variety of pertinent topics, such as: Identifying, eliminating and controlling potential fall hazards; Inspecting, using and maintaining fall protection equipment on a regular basis; Executing the tactics within a fall protection plan; Compliance with applicable industry standards.

A detailed overview of the recommended ‘levels’ of training required from a worker through to a site manager is detailed in AS/NZS1891.4, section 2.2.11 and also Appendix E. All these guidelines specify the involvement of a competent person to undertake tasks on a worksite. AS/NZS1891.4 defines a competent person as someone with ‘the skills education and experience to perform a specified task’.

Who should deliver training?

Fall protection training is best delivered by training organisations that specialise in vocational training and assessment. In Australia, Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) are independently assessed by the Australian Skills and Quality Authority (ASQA) for their ability to deliver competency based training against a strict criteria. TAFE colleges and private training organisations are examples of RTOs.

Types of training

Since workers typically learn the most by watching first and then doing, it is best to conduct a fall protection training program with an equal amount of classroom and hands-on instruction. Any training program will need to provide learning that approximates actual work conditions so the workers can easily apply what they’ve learned to real situations.

Classroom training

Most classes combine lecture style training, including slides and video, with group discussions to apply theory to practical applications. Training manuals should be provided for workers to reference both during and following the course. Important topics to address include fall energy and how to accurately calculate fall clearance.

Equipment demonstrations and tutorial videos can also be provided during classroom training. From here, workers should be prepared to move on to practical applications where they will experience first-hand how to properly use equipment and execute the fall protection plan.

Hands-on training

By far the most effective and most desirable type of fall protection training, hands-on training allows workers to learn by doing and gives them the opportunity to be corrected in a controlled environment. When talking about a harness, for example, there is no substitute for putting it on and having it adjusted properly, connecting to an anchor, experiencing how it feels and seeing first-hand what needs to be inspected before use. Workers can also conduct mock trials of the fall and rescue procedures to become familiar and comfortable with the tactics in their plan.

Hands-on learning experience can be offered either on or off the worksite. Courses at an off-site facility provide controlled environments uniquely designed to offer practical experience. On-site courses, on the other hand, apply professional training to specific daily work activities. By training in and around the workers’ normal environment, one can ensure that the issues discussed are immediately applicable to the employees.

Assessments

Training courses should be competency-based, with each course having a specific and relevant unit of competency as indicated by the learning objectives and lesson plan. With these types of programs, writing assessments and/or hands-on exercises are to be completed by workers to show knowledge retention of the presented information and the ability to apply it in a work-like environment.

The bottom line

Give workers the confidence they need to conduct their work safely with the right equipment and with the knowledge to help their co-workers in the event of a fall. Equipping the team with the right fall protection equipment is a vital step toward a safer jobsite. However, none of it will make a difference unless each and every worker knows how to use the equipment and simultaneously, understands the consequences of not using it.

Michael Biddle is Managing Director for 3M, Australian and New Zealand and the current Chair of the Working at Heights Association (WAHA).