Is This Fall Protection?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / July 31, 2006

It’s time to take a serious look at how fall protection is regulated in the scaffold industry.  I have addressed this issue in the past with no apparent effect since nothing has changed.  There is no doubt that fall protection, particularly personal fall arrest equipment, has made tremendous advancements over the last ten years or so.  Harnesses, attachment hardware, ease of use and comfort are positive indicators that fall protection manufacturers have achieved impressive successes.  While this has helped the scaffold erector and user, the regulations that were written more than a decade ago have not kept pace with the reality of the situation.

Frankly, nobody is behaving.  Not the scaffold erectors, not the scaffold users, not the safety managers, not the compliance officers.  Basically all of us.  The bottom line is that selective enforcement of the fall protection regulations has replaced consistent regulatory enforcement.  This is not all that bad if you’re the one that can call the shots.  If you aren’t that person, you may be in trouble.  Before I suggest a solution, a review of the regulations is required to identify the dichotomy of the situation.

The federal OSHA regulations, (state regulations are similar) require that an individual using personal fall arrest equipment comply with certain requirements, designed to ensure that the use of personal fall arrest equipment is effective in minimizing injuries and preventing deaths.  These original requirements include:

  • Limiting the force on your body to 1,800 pounds;
  • Limiting the free fall to 6 feet (Since the original requirements were issued, OSHA determined that the free fall could be more than 6 feet but the force on the body still could only be 1800 pounds maximum);
  • Limiting the deceleration distance to 3.5 feet;
  • Not allowing you to hit the level below;
  • Using an adequate anchor. This anchor must be 2 times stronger than the load experienced or 5000 pounds if the anchor is not designed.

If my experience is any indicator, nobody complies.  Furthermore, nobody is enforcing all of these standards.  Let’s face it, when a general contractor requires 100 per cent fall protection, either it’s not happening or they aren’t complying with the regulations listed above.  Sure, the contractor is adamant about everybody be connected to something but will it really be in compliance if the errant employee chooses to fall?  And if the employee were to fall, do we really care if he/she is in compliance as long as this employee is able to go home to spouse and family?

Here’s the solution.  Wave the personal fall protection for scaffold erectors.  That’s right; give erectors an exemption on the above requirements.  This will eliminate the constant battle between the safety folks and the erectors.  Sure, if an erector falls while tied off to the scaffold, he may damage the scaffold.  If she is wearing a shock absorbing lanyard, chances are that the force on the scaffold will be considerably less than the 1,800 pounds and no where near the 5,000 pounds.  Of course, the flip side of this is that the erector cannot argue that fall protection is impossible because a 5000 pound anchor cannot be found.  The erector doesn’t need one.  Nobody else needs a 5000 pound anchor either.

For users, the situation is not similar.  I do not advocate waiving the rules for these workers.  Passive fall protection, such as guardrail system, is typically available for scaffold users and is effective.  If personal fall protection is required, suitable anchors can be located, either by constructing scaffolds to support potential fall forces, or choosing anchors that are outside the scaffold.  Employers must continue to train their employees in fall hazard recognition and to advocate proper fall protection.  For scaffolds, this would require complying with the regulations–all of them.

My proposal is this:  Waive the 5,000 pound regulation for scaffold erectors.  Waive the regulation limiting the free fall distance for erectors.  This will legally permit scaffold erectors to tie off at their feet.  Require all scaffold erectors to wear harnesses whenever they are elevated, with the understanding that they are to “tie off” when they are in a stationary mode.  Require that all scaffold erectors utilize shock absorbing lanyards and/or retractable lanyards that help minimize the fall forces on the body.  Allow the competent person to permit the leading edge erectors to work without fall protection, similar to leading edge steel erectors.  Waive the regulation for deceleration distance.

Is this industry up to the challenge of providing reasonable solutions for scaffold erectors?  Is OSHA willing to recognize the reality?  Are we willing to do what is right for the erector and user of scaffolds?  I think we are.  Prove me right.  What do you think?  Send your opinions to the editor;  I want to know if this is a reasonable approach.  If you don’t think this is reasonable, suggest an alternative solution; constructive criticism is good, complaining is bad.  I’m waiting to hear from you.

Tags: Fall Protection fall protection standards OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources scaffold erectors

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