Improving worker compliance with fall protection equipment

3M Fall Protection

By Rick Millar, Technical Manager for Capital Safety Australia & New Zealand, a 3M company
Tuesday, 08 March, 2016

Improving worker compliance with fall protection equipment

Despite alarming statistics provided by Safe Work Australia that indicate falls from height remain the number one cause of death in the construction industry — accounting for more than 12% of all worker fatalities in 2014 — many workers continue to avoid using proper fall protection equipment. Compliance challenges will continue to be challenges in the future unless something radically changes in the industry.

Falls even from a relatively low height can result in serious injury or death. The Safe Work Australia statistics for 2012 revealed that falling from heights accounted for 29 workers’ deaths, and eight of those workers lost their lives due to falls from roofs.

Workers who do not comply with using the proper fall protection equipment, including their safety harness, each and every time they work at height, are placing not only themselves at risk but also those around them. When workers choose to work at height without wearing their harness, even during a task that takes just a few minutes or occurs at a low height, the risks, and costs, can be enormous.

Fall-related injuries and deaths can be devastating on a physical, emotional and financial level for the worker, the worker’s family and the company. In addition to the loss of life or injury, a fall can easily cripple or bankrupt a business. According to Safe Work Australia, work-related injuries and illness were estimated at costing $60.6 billion, in which a percentage included falls from height.

Convincing employees and workers to wear their safety harness and fall protection equipment and be trained in their use is crucial.

Traditional methods companies have used to increase worker compliance

To reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by falls from height, fall protection manufacturers, safety consultants, regulatory agencies and construction companies have dedicated enormous amounts of resources to encouraging worker compliance, including:

  • developing safer fall protection harnesses;
  • offering improved fall protection training; and
  • enforcing stricter standards and regulations.
Safer fall protection harnesses

One way to encourage workers to use their personal fall arrest system when they work at height is to develop safer harnesses.

Harnesses have greatly evolved since the early 20th century. The first at-height protective gear included body belts worn around the waist to protect utility linemen during pole climbing; although better than no protection, body belts could cause spinal and midsection injury from transmitted fall arrest forces; workers could also slip out of the belt during a fall.

By the 1940s, the first full-body harness was developed based on military parachute harnesses used by paratroopers. The harness was much safer and more effective than the body belt, but heavy materials such as leather and cotton, as well as bulky construction, made the harnesses uncomfortable for workers to wear.

Safety harnesses have continued to evolve, using designs based on recreational harnesses and receiving input from mechanical engineers and industrial designers to improve safety and ergonomics.

Depending on the manufacturer, current full-body harnesses can include features such as additional back lumbar support, positioning rings, tool-carrying options and specialty materials, construction offering fire resistance or arc flash protection, and protection for workers in even the most precarious work situations.

We need protection because even those of us with experience working at heights can lose our balance or grip; we can slip, trip or misstep at any time. We may think that our reflexes will protect us, but we’re falling before we know it and we don’t have to fall far to be seriously injured. We’ve been falling since day one. Until we get better at landing, we’ll need protection from falling.

However, even with the development of much safer full-body harnesses, achieving worker compliance remains challenging.

Improved fall protection training

In addition to offering safer equipment, training workers on how to correctly use that equipment increases the likelihood that they will be protected whilst working at height.

Comprehensive fall protection training, fall arrest training and industrial rescue courses provide companies with the right kind of training for their particular trade or industry’s work environment. Training is also offered in a variety of formats, including on-site demonstrations and hands-on experiences, video and online training, and specialised training customised for the worksite.

The more informed and prepared workers can be about the hazards of working at height, how to properly use personal fall arrest systems and how to avoid falls, the more likely workers are to comply and to safely work at height.

However, even though fall protection training is available at a variety of price points and levels of customisation, workers are not always as prepared as they could be. Unfortunately, many training programs rely on a worker simply watching a video and signing a roster.

Enhanced fall protection regulations and standards

Developing standards for and enforcing the use of fall protection equipment — for both employers and workers — is another way to improve worker compliance. Australian Standards first published the AS 1891 standard for Industrial Safety Belts and Harnesses in 1976, subsequently revising the standard as the industry evolved until the current version. AS/NZS 1891.4:2009 Industrial fall-arrest systems and devices — Selection, use and maintenance is recognised and referenced in state and federal codes of practice and safe work guidelines.

As important as legal regulations are to the industry, Thomas E Kramer, president of the International Society for Fall Protection, says, “One of the most important steps to increasing safety for workers at heights is for workers to take personal responsibility for their own safety, rather than having safety imposed upon them.”

Why is worker compliance still so challenging?

Every one of the above initiatives has helped; each has been a crucial piece of the puzzle in improving worker compliance while working at height. But the question remains: if safety harnesses and fall protection equipment save lives, why aren’t workers consistently using them?

As yearly statistics continue to show, getting workers to use their fall protection equipment — every single time while working at height — is still a huge challenge. No matter how safe fall protection equipment is or how thorough the education, training and regulation is, if the equipment isn’t being used, the worker remains at risk.

Capital Safety resolved to find out why — and come up with a solution. It began research by having in-depth conversations with workers in the field, safety managers and ergonomics specialists. Over and over, the company heard the same three major complaints. According to experts, employers and workers, safety harnesses:

  • are too heavy and uncomfortable when they are loaded with tools and gear;
  • are too hot; and
  • get in the way of doing the job.

For decades, the primary focus of safety harnesses and worker compliance was to protect workers from falls, while comfort and worker productivity got pushed to the backburner.

Although most manufacturers already say their harnesses are ergonomic and comfortable, the reality is that it is clearly time for modern-day safety harness to evolve to ensure worker compliance. The comfort of your employees will go a long way in encouraging them to wear their fall protection.

In addition to ensuring more comfortable workers, a truly ergonomic safety harness also translates to good business for employers. A comfortable harness means:

  • Improved safety. When fall protection equipment is comfortable to wear, workers are more likely to put it on day after day. The safest harness is the one that’s comfortable enough that workers choose to wear it.
  • Improved productivity. Keeping workers comfortable on the job directly contributes to their happiness and work satisfaction, which translates to significant productivity gains for employers.
  • Improved worker retention. When the work is challenging and days at height are long, worker satisfaction greatly depends on how comfortable they are, both on the job and once they have returned home at the end of the day. An exhausted worker feeling the aches and pains from the strain of a poorly designed harness has one more reason to look for their next work opportunity elsewhere.

The final piece of the puzzle in improving worker safety harness compliance is clear: offer workers a harness they want to wear.

As a result of Capital Safety’s research in the field, out-of-the-box engineering in the lab and ergonomics testing in partnership with the HC Sweere Centre for Clinical Biomechanics and Applied Ergonomics at Northwestern Health Sciences University, the DBI-SALA ExoFit STRATA harness has been released. The safety harness has been designed to be comfortable enough for workers to want to wear it all day long and incorporates weight-distributing technology that improves the ergonomics and decreases the impact on workers’ backs and shoulders.

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