As we enter the new year we carry with us the practices of the old year with the hope for a better future. While there is very little historical data, it is assumed we are safer today than say, a hundred years ago. With scaffolds in particular, it seems to be generally assumed that we proudly go about our business assuming that what we do is smart, safe, and efficient. But is it? On what basis do we make that claim?
Here are a few observations to take with you into the new year, particularly when it comes to fall protection. First, and most important, don’t assume you will know when you are going to fall. In my experience, as a trainer and expert witness, nobody ever anticipates he will fall. Many workers anticipate that they might fall; that’s the reason many workers use personal fall arrest equipment. But I have yet to meet the person who anticipates the fall or for that matter, looks forward to the fall itself.
On average, there are approximately 700 deaths each year in the construction industry. Nineteen per cent, 133 fatalities, involve scaffolds. Of those 133 deaths, 93 are due to falls. That works out to one worker falling to his death off a scaffold every three work days! Statistics also show that ten of these 93 annual deaths are scaffold erectors, including both professional and “casual” erectors. If these fatalities aren’t enough to get your attention, remember that these statistics do not include the injuries that are involved with falls. Typically these injuries are life altering, not only for the injured worker, but also for his/her family and friends.
Each day you should be asking what can be done to reduce and eliminate deaths by falls. The fact is that we have sufficient regulations, standards, and guidelines in place to effectively reduce the number of fatalities. We have fall protection equipment available for most scaffold users that can totally eliminate exposure to falls. Additionally, through careful planning, evaluation, and wise application of existing technology, standards, and training we can minimize fall exposures for scaffold erectors.
Complying with the applicable standards is a good start for any user of scaffolds. The fact is that the lack of fall protection or guardrails is responsible for 40 percent of the fatalities. Surely we, in the association and the industry, can improve on that number. As a minimum, North American standards clearly require fall protection once a platform is a certain height above the level below. While this maximum unprotected height varies from state to state and province to province, this height is never more than ten feet. Fall protection on scaffolds can be either personal fall arrest equipment or a guardrail system on typical supported (built from the ground up) scaffolds and both types of fall protection are required on typical single and two point suspended scaffolds.
93 fall fatalities on scaffolds each year are unacceptable. Since the standards are clear and specific, what does it take to make an employee understand the necessity of fall protection; a quadriplegic who cannot move, talk, or eat on his own? Surely there must be a better incentive. Simply stated, compliance with the standards is a reduction in hazards. We must take these standards seriously, not because of potential punishment, but because the regulations address specific well known hazards. We must reward compliance rather than punish non-compliance. We must investigate new methods, techniques, ideas, and equipment. We must encourage innovation. . We must encourage training. Accurate, specific training is the most effective tool available to reduce fatalities on the job.
Would your attitude towards fall protection change if one of these fatalities was your child, your spouse, your best friend? What are you going to do this year to lower that number? What will you do this year to make sure that the number of fatalities at the end of this year, is lower? In theory, it’s simple – don’t fall. In practice, can we make it this simple?