Fall protection is a huge topic these days what with people falling down and falling from heights. And since scaffolds are, by definition “any temporary elevated platform,” the issue of fall protection is significant, especially since most scaffold fatalities are due to falls from heights. It doesn’t have to be this way. Scaffold suppliers have this really cool product called a guardrail that when used properly, will keep you from falling. And if you don’t like that, you can always use other stuff to keep from falling to your death.
As you may already know, there are basically two choices when addressing fall protection from scaffold platforms: a guardrail system and personal fall arrest systems. While not specifically addressed in many safety standards, fall restraint can also be used as a form of fall protection. Other options are available for fall protection from places like open sided floors and roofs, options that include safety nets, monitoring systems, warning lines and fall protection plans. It should be noted that lots of safety folks don’t like some of those options since they require workers to behave and we all know that doesn’t always happen.
Experience has indicated to me that when it comes to fall protection, everybody is an expert. I’m not sure if that is because people fall, making them instant experts, or they think it’s no big deal to “tie off.” So let’s look at some of these issues and sort out the fact from the fiction.
- Fall protection is required when you are more than 6 feet above the level below. Fact and fiction! It depends on the applicable code. Codes require fall protection at heights ranging from 4 feet to 30 feet. So find out what the rule is where you are working (or hanging around).
- Most workers on construction sites, both commercial and industrial, often use personal fall protection equipment. Fiction. Very few workers use personal fall protection equipment.
- Many workers wear personal fall protection equipment. Fact. Luckily very few workers use it.
- Anchors for personal fall protection systems must hold 5,000 pounds. Fiction. If the anchor is designed by a qualified person, it must have a safety factor of 2.
- If you hook your lanyard (the other end of the rope that is attached to your harness) to an anchor, the anchor must be designed. Fact. You cannot guess at the strength of the anchor; if the anchor is not part of a system designed by a qualified person (see #4) the anchor must hold at least 5,000 pounds. Guessing is not allowed although it appears everybody does it.
- The maximum force on the body is limited to 1,800 pounds. Fact. This means you better not fall too far before your fall is arrested. That’s a fancy way of saying that when you reach the end of your rope, the force on your body better be less than 1,800 pounds or there will be two of you. Incidentally, if the force on your body is limited to 1,800 pounds why does the anchor have to hold 5,000 pounds? After all, if you pull on one end of the rope with 1,800 pounds, doesn’t the anchor on the other end only have to pull with a force of 1,800 pounds? Hmmmm-what’s with that?
- The 5,000 pound anchor requirement is based on extensive scholarly research and testing. Fiction. It’s based on the strength of ¾ inch manila rope which is actually 5,400 pounds. It was lowered to 5,000 pounds in the US federal construction standards to agree with the US federal general industry standards. So much for science.
- You cannot free fall more than 6 feet. Fiction (sort of). You can free fall as far as you would like, according to a US federal OSHA Letter of Interpretation. It’s just that when you get to the end of your free fall, the load on your body cannot be more than 1,800 pounds. (Now you know how bungee jumping works.)
- 100 percent tie off is the same as 100 percent fall protection. Fiction. Anybody can do 100 percent tie off; just look at any construction site. Workers tie off to all sorts of ridiculous stuff. Like the guy that ties off to the step ladder he is on! One hundred percent fall protection is easy for scaffold users, but not leading edge scaffold erectors.
- I cannot use a scaffold for an anchor. Fiction. Some scaffolds make very nice boat anchors.
- I can use a scaffold as an anchor. Fact. When designed by a qualified person (and perhaps a qualified Professional Engineer) a scaffold can be used as an anchor for a personal fall protection system.
- It is difficult to provide adequate anchorage for leading edge erectors and still comply with all the fall protection standards. Fact. It’s really tough to get a scaffold to hold 5,000 pounds. It’s really tough to limit the free fall distance for erectors to 6 feet when they have nothing above them to tie to. If we waived certain regulations for scaffold erectors, we would eliminate some of the excuses. For example, is it really necessary for scaffold erectors to have an anchor that can hold 5,000 pounds? Is it really necessary that the system have a 2 to 1 safety factor. After all, as long as he/she doesn’t fall to a certain death have we not succeeded? Something to think about.
- Horizontal lifelines are easy to install and use. Fiction. While they may be easy to install, they are not easy to use. The problem with horizontal lifelines is that people never use them. That’s right; they install them, and hook off but luckily never use them. If they used them they would be terribly disappointed in the performance of the line. There is a reason horizontal lifelines are to be designed by a qualified person. Did you know that an anchor on a horizontal lifeline can see a load of 25,000 pounds if it is not designed properly? What do you suppose that would do to the scaffold?
- All safety consultants and compliance officers are experts in fall protection design and installation. Fiction.
- All scaffold users are experts in fall protection design and installation. Fiction.
- All scaffold erectors are experts in fall protection design and installation. Fiction.
So much for fall protection– I still think the easiest fall protection is: Don’t fall. But then perhaps there’s more fiction in that statement than fact!