What you need to know about fall protection gear for workers… and their tools
By Oscar Ratalino, Research & Development Manager, 3M Fall Protection
Thursday, 06 October, 2016
For workers at height the number one safety concern is preventing a fall, whether it be a person or an object. According to Safe Work Australia, falls are a major cause of death and serious injury in Australian workplaces, and being struck by a falling object is a leading cause of injury for workers and the fourth-highest cause of death in the workplace*.
‘Fall protection’ has historically referred to the harness and gear that either prevents a person from falling or protects them in the event of a fall. Today, many organisations are starting to understand that fall protection should refer to anything that can fall, including tools and equipment. But with tools and equipment, it’s not about catching the objects that fall, we have to stop them from falling in the first place.
Despite the alarming statistics, and the fact that many of these fatalities and injuries could have been prevented with the right safety gear, numerous companies do not take the necessary precautions to prevent fall-related injuries by providing their workers with personal fall protection systems for themselves and for their tools. What goes up must come down. It’s all about providing the right equipment and training to ensure that a person, and the tools they carry, comes back down safely on the worker’s terms and not that of gravity.
Providing workers with the right equipment is simply not enough. Unlike hard hats, safety glasses and gloves (which are intuitive to use and don’t require training), fall protection gear is highly specialised, and initially most workers don’t know how to use it correctly. The effectiveness of fall protection gear, no matter how durable or reliable, is compromised when not used correctly. That’s why organisations should always enlist a specialist to show their workers not only what tools to use but how to use them.
How to select fall protection gear
At the most basic level, fall protection equipment is about creating connection points for at-height workers and objects. For a worker at height, a personal fall protection system prevents them from falling or arrests their fall if one does occur. For tools and equipment, a lanyard, cable or safe bucket can be used to prevent objects from falling. Any dropped object, whether it be a person or tool, can be fatal to workers at height and on the ground, their co-workers and innocent bystanders.
The right fall protection gear can help prevent serious injury or death to workers at height. Today, fall protection equipment is becoming more accessible, intuitive and affordable than ever before. It also offers new, advanced features to help workers stay safe without adversely impacting their day-to-day work activities. For example, harnesses for workers have been improved to offer more comfort, as well as convenient connection points for tool lanyards that won’t interfere with a worker’s needs while working at height.
Before deciding what gear to get, take the time to educate yourself on how recent advances in fall protection equipment can improve the way your company operates, which might cause you to reassess your current equipment inventory. Don’t just rely on information online, but take the time to explore hands-on demonstration opportunities from fall protection experts and manufacturers.
When selecting fall protection gear, be sure to select durable, user-friendly equipment that includes the advanced features that will not only help workers remain as productive as possible, but provide them with an added incentive to use it consistently. Also, ensure the tools selected match the manner in which they will be used.
For example, if you’re working long shifts, is the personal fall protection harness comfortable enough so you can wear it throughout the workday and feel minimal discomfort after taking it off? If you’re using an assortment of tools at height, do you have a bucket that supports their weight and can secure them from falling?
Personal fall protection equipment 101
Active fall protection gear, such as a harness or a self-retracting lifeline (SRL), can mitigate the risk of serious injury if workers learn how to wear and use the equipment properly, and how to conduct regular inspection and maintenance of the equipment.
There are five functional categories of fall protection equipment:
- Fall arrest — A fall arrest system is required if there is any risk a worker may fall from an elevated position. They are designed to arrest a fall in progress and are typically composed of a full-body harness with a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline, an anchor point and a means of rescue.
- Restraint — Restraint systems typically include a full-body harness and a lanyard or restraint line that prevent the user from reaching a fall hazard.
- Work positioning — A positioning system holds the worker in place while keeping his or her hands free to work. It typically includes a full-body harness, a positioning lanyard and a backup fall arrest system.
- Ladder climbing — A climbing system prevents the user from falling when climbing a ladder or other structure and typically comprises a full-body harness, vertical cable or rail attachment and climbing sleeve.
- Descent and rescue — In the event of a fall, retrieval equipment is needed to rescue or remove a worker and return him or her to a safe level. These devices include tripods, davit arms, winches and comprehensive rescue systems, and can allow for either a self-rescue or a peer-rescue, depending on the situation. For all at-height workers a rescue plan should be in place to minimise the time it takes to return a fallen worker to safety.
Fall protection for tools: dropped object prevention
Many companies overlook the importance of personal fall arrest systems, but even more fail to address systems designed to keep tools from falling. All too often they rely on secondary systems such as debris nets, toe boards and personal protective equipment (PPE) to catch the tool or to limit the damage that it does to the worker. Little thought is put into stopping the tool from falling in the first place.
The danger of a dropped object is often underestimated. Even the smallest object dropped from a height as low as 200 cm can result in serious injury or death.
One common misconception is that hard hats are an acceptable line of defence against dropped objects. But the truth is that hard hats only provide limited protection and cannot prevent workers from being injured by all dropped objects… only dropped object prevention does.
The categories of fall protection for tools
- Attachment points — Attachment points such as a D-Ring make it possible to tie off any tool in a matter of seconds — without defacing or structurally modifying the tool.
- Lanyards — Tool lanyards are suitable for virtually any tool. Hard hats, radios, hand tools, even tools weighing up to 36 kg.
- Pouches — Pouches are built specifically to prevent dropped objects and are available in a number of variations. A key element of a good pouch is a self-closure system. Once an object is placed in the pouch, a self-closure system helps prevent objects from falling out.
- Buckets — Buckets are designed to help workers transport objects from one area to another. These objects are typically larger in size, including scaffold poles, torque wrenches and pipe wrenches. A bucket should come with an effective closure system such as a hook and loop closure system, allowing the user to lock it or use it easily.
Using fall protection gear
In order to make the most of your safety gear, first familiarise yourself with your fall protection program and then be sure you understand how to use the equipment safely, within the context of your plan and job site.
For example, does your equipment match your job site and provide a safe amount of fall clearance so a worker is not at risk of hitting anything below in the event of a fall? Do you have a safe, secure anchor point and connection for yourself and your equipment?
Make sure you also know not only how to use the gear, but how to set it up properly. For example, a tool that isn’t attached correctly to a D-ring can lead to preventable accidents and even tragedies.
On-site training courses allow participants to apply the training, and gear, directly to their worksite, and to their specific daily activities.
Inspecting and maintaining fall protection gear
A full inspection of all fall protection equipment should be completed before and after each use to ensure that the items are in good working order, and the results should be documented in an inspection log. In addition, a competent person should conduct regular inspections as outlined in AS/NZS 1891.
Always replace any equipment that looks damaged and be sure to stay up to date on all training courses. If you are diligent in inspecting and updating your fall protection and dropped object prevention gear, keeping it clean and storing it properly, it should perform properly in the event you or your tools fall from height.
Safety isn’t something that can be bought. It’s a culture that starts at the top and must be ingrained in safe work practices by employees every day. If senior management demonstrates an earnest commitment to safety, so will their employees.
Too often companies only invest in safety after a tragic event occurs. Although most companies now recognise the hazards of working at height, the next step is for them to realise that fall protection and dropped object prevention must be addressed before an incident, not after, to help improve the personal safety of workers while working at height.
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