Words from Malta Dynamics Operations Manager, Greg Brown: “Towards the end of 2021, I conducted a poll on LinkedIn and asked this question to the safety professionals in my network. There were 200 votes and 63% of those votes said their biggest hurdle is that employees are not using fall protection while working at heights.
I was surprised to see such a discrepancy, so let’s give some thought as to why employees are not using fall protection like they should. We are quick to point a finger at a worker on the roof in a high vis shirt with no harness, no warning line, no protection between the worker and the edge. However, generally that worker is not a one-person company, they are an employee of someone. They have an employer who has responsibilities to follow the letter of the law and to protect their workers.
I’m going to challenge safety professionals and ask if you simply bought that employee a fall protection kit, handed it to them and told them to wear this while they were working, is that doing your part in providing what is necessary for that employee to be safe? Is that enough to inspire them to represent the company and themselves in the best way possible?
The answer is no. It is easy to point at a result rather than look at the holes in the overall safety plan of that job or of that company. I believe there is more at play than a reckless individual with no regard for their company or their own safety. For every worker that you see who does not work safely, you’ll find an employer, company, or safety program that is lacking the proper focus.
For over a decade, fall protection related accidents and citations have dominated the top spot of OSHA violations. How many times in a year do you see a news headline about a worker who has fallen to their death?
So, is fall protection really hard to get right or really hard to enforce? When a company receives an OSHA violation it creates a domino effect with fines, insurance premiums and the company’s ability to win bids on jobs.
The same issue has been at the top for so long that it may seem impossible to fix. Whether it’s citations, accidents, or deaths associated with Fall Protection, the category is always at the top. There are just a handful of reasons that your workers are not performing safely. Once you understand these five reasons, then you can unlock the ways to correct your safety plans and get your workers home safely while avoiding citations, accidents, and deaths on the job site.
There is an added bonus that we don’t always acknowledge. Working safely makes MONEY! Your bottom line is affected by your ability to work safely in many ways. The most profitable companies in Construction and Industrial spaces are generally the safest companies as well, and this is no coincidence.”
The details of safety on the job site need to be clearly communicated, trained and documented to everyone on the job site. Are you having your workers watch a 20 year old, generic fall protection video, signing a paper and then heading to work? Or, are the workers walking the site, being presented with the hazards with the fall plan, the rescue plan, do they know what gear to use for each hazard and are they trained on daily inspections?
This one seems a little insensitive. However, there are far more citations than there are falls and deaths in fall protection. Every single violation costs a company regardless of size. An OSHA inspector has the authority to stop your job completely. This means whether you run the job or are a small sub contractor on a large job, everything can stop. Work cannot resume until approved by OSHA. Willful and repeat violations for fall protection are always making local news if not regional or national news. Fines can be $13,000 to over a million dollars. EMR (Experience Modification Rate) ratings or Workers’ Comp. are negatively affected, and it becomes difficult to win bids when competing against companies who have a better safety record.
If a worker wants to prosper with a company and earn good benefits, good wages, profit sharing and year end bonuses, don’t you think they would want to do everything they can to ensure the company’s success? Also, don’t you think that if they understand that they directly affect the company in a major way, by working safely, that they would do so happily?
Similar to how violations and fines impact a company, they also negatively impact the individual worker who commits the violation. The worker can be punished, can lose pay, they can also be demoted or terminated for violating the law and company policy. If a worker experiences a fall, there are a host of challenges that they would now have to face in their personal life, if they survive the fall. In a scenario where a worker falls 10 feet and lands on their hip, they are looking at a hospital visit, possible surgery and weeks to months of rehabilitation, time away from work and relying on family members to help them with their day to day life.
“During my time in visiting companies across the country, I have spoken with a few individuals who have fallen while working. One person in particular, worked in aviation and fell over 20 feet from the wing of an aircraft. This was over 20 years ago and the individual still deals with physical pain and limitations due to his fall every single day. Many people who experience a substantial injury on the job are not able to return to work and have lifelong limitations. Some become dependent on pain medication and there are a lot of documented cases where couples become divorced or separated after a traumatic event like this. The impact on your life outside of work does not often cross a worker’s mind when they make the decision to forgo working safely.”
This one builds on the lack of education and knowledge. Oftentimes a task is easier or simpler to perform without taking certain precautions. If workers can do a task unsafely in 10 minutes or can do it safely in 30 minutes, some workers may take the risk and perform the work unsafely knowing that their shortcut will not be known by the safety manager. Visibility of the safety manager on site and strict enforcement of company policy and OSHA regulations are absolutely necessary to consistently perform work safely. According to my experience, this reason results in more unsafe work than any other reasons in this article.
The safety manager should have authority to enforce safe practices, pull workers from their duties if not working safely and even stop work if violations are egregious or workers are presently at risk for harm. All employees working on the site should understand this and realize it can happen and give the safety plan and safety manager respect for the position. With that authority comes a great deal of responsibility. A safety manager has more responsibility than most workers and managers, and their focus is very broad because there are safety concerns in many aspects of work. Oftentimes we get wrapped up in documentation and our site visits are not what they need to be. Sometimes you’re on site and doing training and documentation gets behind. Companies with great safety records have found a balance of making sure their documentation is right, people are working safely and production is not hindered by safety related stoppages. Please ask yourself, do I have the authority to enforce safety and when needed do I have enough visibility to know when violations are occurring. Also, am I taking corrective action with employees when violations occur.
The truth in every situation is that not wearing a PFAS is more comfortable than donning a harness, hooking up a connector and working in fall restraint or fall arrest. If you give an employee the opportunity to perform a task where fall protection is not required and one where it is required, nine out of ten times the worker would rather not put on fall protection gear.
The first way to remedy this, is to do everything you can to remove fall hazards. Also, provide passive fall restraint solutions where workers can be protected without the need for a PFAS. This cannot always be achieved. So, investing in the right gear and understanding the environment and the tasks performed, can result in a more comfortable experience while working safely at heights.
Every safety harness, whether it costs $40 or $400, goes through the same fall arrest testing. The safety of every harness tested to the latest ANSI standard for fall protection harnesses, has the same effectiveness against the forces of a fall. So, why are there so many options with such a variant in prices? A basic harness in the $40 range is not likely to have padding for your shoulders or legs, no belt with lumbar support or other certain features. However, if a worker utilizes it as part of their PFAS and is properly used and inspected, it is an effective solution. If a worker is wearing a safety harness 8-10 hours a day with tool bags and personal SRLs on their back, then it is a good idea to invest in a light-weight harness with breathable padding and all of the accessories that can give a worker convenience and relief. It is important to the comfort and function of a safety harness to be the correct size and adjusted to fit the individual worker.
Matching up a worker with the right gear reduces fatigue and improves production, no question. Fall protection gear does not have to be uncomfortable and not only will your workers appreciate you providing comfortable, task oriented equipment, they will also appreciate your investment in them and your attention to their comfort as well as their safety.
“I hope this gives some insight and understanding into why sometimes workers choose not to wear fall protection. The next step is taking action as a safety manager to consider these when you are developing your safety plans and give yourself the opportunity to understand your workers better and provide solutions that help you, them and your company. It keeps people alive, out of the hospital, OSHA off your back, and it makes you money!”
Written By: Greg Brown, Malta Dynamics Operations Manager