By David H. Glabe, P.E. / January 31, 2017

A lot has been said about falls and fall protection. The U.S. Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, has emphasized fall hazard awareness and increased enforcement of the fall protection regulations for years in the hope that deaths and major injuries due to falls in the workplace can be reduced. Manufacturers and suppliers are complementing the OSHA emphasis by offering a plethora of products that can be used to keep employees from falling. Or, more accurately, to keep employees from falling from heights to levels below in such a manner that they get injured or killed.

Due to the complexity of fall protection, it is not a simple procedure to provide personal fall protection equipment in such a way that it will protect an employee in all situations all the time. Confusing the matter is the inaccurate information, conflicting codes and interests, and a whole bunch of misconceptions about fall protection. Here are a few of the more frequently asked questions (FAQS)

What’s a personal fall arrest system? A personal fall arrest system (PFAS) consists of a full body harness, a shock absorbing lanyard or self-retracting lanyard, a vertical lifeline or horizontal lifeline, and an anchor. Alternatively, the lanyard can be attached directly to an anchor, eliminating the lifeline.

Is it true that I can use either a guardrail system or personal fall arrest system when working on a supported scaffold such as a frame or systems scaffold? That is true although the guardrail will be much more effective unless you are using the fall arrest system for fall restraint.

What is fall restraint? Fall restraint is using a personal fall arrest system to keep you from going off the edge of an exposed platform edge. It’s like hooking up the employee to a leash.

Why is a guardrail system more effective than a PFAS? A guardrail system keeps you on the platform or floor while a PFAS catches you after you have decided to leave the platform or floor.

I went bungee jumping once and found it to be exhilarating. Does one get the same thrill from falling off a floor while wearing a PFAS? I don’t know—I haven’t done either one although I want to jump off a bridge attached to a rubber band—sounds like fun. Falling from heights utilizing a PFAS, on the other hand is a whole different experience. While it is often perceived that no injury will occur due to a fall, the truth is quite the opposite. While there are those who experience no injury, typical injuries include severe bruising and intestinal damage. Frankly, the only thing worse than falling while wearing a PFAS is falling without a PFAS.

That doesn’t make sense: people use PFAS daily and I don’t hear of any injuries. What gives? The fact of the matter is that employees utilize/wear PFAS but very, very few actually use it. In other words, although employees wear harnesses and are attached to anchors, they rarely actually use the harness because they don’t fall from heights. Consequently, since they don’t fall, they don’t get hurt.

I have been told that my PFAS anchor has to hold 5,000 pounds unless it is designed by a qualified person, that is someone who knows how to design the anchor and system. Is this true?
Yes it is. The OSHA regulations and other codes require that the anchor you use has to be “capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per employee attached, or shall be designed, installed and used as part of a complete PFAS which maintains a safety factor of at least two and under the supervision of a qualified person.” [29 CFR 1926.502(d)(15)]

Are you telling me that before I attach my lifeline or lanyard to an anchor I must have someone determine it can hold 5,000 pounds? Yes.

Come on, no one does that. Everyone eyeballs the chosen anchor and estimates its strong enough. You mean I cannot do that? That is correct: OSHA says you cannot do that.

But it works; I mean that is what everyone does so isn’t it okay? It works because you don’t fall and therefore you never actually use the anchor! Just because you hook off to something that you call an anchor does not an anchor make. In other words, just because it looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work. While not recommended, you must jump off the floor to see if your anchor will work.

Why does everyone get away with guessing as to the strength of the anchor? That’s easy; the regulation isn’t enforced. Besides, all the safety folks are happy if the guy is “tied off.” Luckily we don’t have too many employees jumping or falling off floors.

Isn’t tying off the same as utilizing PFAS? No way. You can tie off to anything, including yourself. Properly utilizing a PFAS means that you have selected an anchor that will support 5,000 pounds or you have tied off to an anchor designed by a qualified person in compliance with the mandatory OSHA regulations.

And what are those mandatory regulations? Here are a few: Limit the freefall to 6 feet; stop within 3.5 feet, (known as the deceleration distance); limit the force on the body to 1,800 pounds; and the most important, don’t hit the surface below.

That sounds complicated; is it? Yes, it can get very complicated to design a system that provides 100% fall protection and be in compliance with all of the applicable codes and OSHA regulations. Fortunately, the fall protection equipment manufacturers have done an incredible job of consistently developing new products that can be used to assist employers in protecting employees from fall hazards. It is amazing the changes that have occurred since I first got into the business many years ago. Unfortunately, too many employees lack the training to use the equipment properly. Fortunately, very few employees ever get the opportunity to actually use their PFAS!

How do I obtain the training to utilize and maybe use my PFAS correctly? There are numerous seminars that offer fall protection training. However, I suggest first contacting the manufacturer of your equipment since it should know its products. To learn about the applicable regulations, select a seminar that fits your needs, such as user, inspector or competent person. And finally, verify that the instructor is qualified to teach the seminar.

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