Working from heights is standard operating procedure in maritime environments, and the risks are high. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that falls are among the most common causes of serious work-related injuries and deaths. Since 1995, OSHA has put meaningful regulations and standards in place to protect workers, but somehow, falls are still a regular occurrence in maritime worksites. There is no question, however, that all fall-related incidents can be prevented.
The History and Evolution of the Fall Protection Industry
In a recent AEU webinar, Thom Kramer, a safety consultant and engineer with more than 20 years of experience, discussed the nature of falls, as well as some ideas for effective fall prevention approaches.
Kramer went into a brief history and evolution of strategies used to prevent falls from heights, noting that the first modern instance of fall protection—somewhere in the 19th or 20th century—likely featured a scenario with someone on a chair, suspended down the side of a ship to do some sort of painting, maintenance, or repair of the exterior. Additional early work environments where workers and their leaders sought to develop fall prevention safety measures were in the utility pole industry—finding safe ways to ascend and descend—scaling the face of the Hoover Dam when it was time to blow the rock face.
Historically, those situations had more to do with getting the job done than an eye toward safety. The chair, rickety ladder, or makeshift scaffolding were mere “tools of access.” Any added security that a strap or rope provided was welcome, but somewhat secondary to accomplishing a high-risk task.
The truth is that they simply didn’t have the backup safety tools at the time, and they needed to accomplish the task on a deadline. Basically, the risk of falls from heights was an accepted part of the job for workers until not so long ago.
During the latter half the 20th century, attitudes about health and safety in the workplace began to change. The late 1960s were a pivotal time for the U.S. in many ways, including the consideration of the dangers faced by workers when building critical infrastructure, ensuring safe trade, and much more, according to OSHA.
This collective concern culminated in The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which called for more of a concentrated focus on worker safety. Not only do business owners now show more concern about the safety of workers, but there is also an entire industry centered around keeping workers safe. Prevention of fall incidents is a major focus of every AEU loss control inspection.
The fall protection industry has developed precision gear such as lanyards, self-retracting devices, belts, and harnesses that allow full movement, as well as peak safety, while allowing workers to perform tasks some would consider death-defying feats.
Why Should You Have a Fall Protection Plan for Your Business?
Clearly, safety and fall protection doesn’t organically happen without a thoughtful approach and reliable gear. Gravity tends to take over.
If someone makes it safely through a shift at your business, do you ever wonder: “Are we lucky when it comes to fall protection, or are we just good at protecting ourselves?”
With so many safety options, including fall protection strategies and high-quality gear, it’s a surprise that companies leave anything to chance when it comes to falls from heights.
Consider just a few of the negative impacts of not developing a fall protection plan:
- The loss of a worker to long-time injury, permanent disability, or even death.
- The lower quality of life of the injured employee, as well as claims for workers’ compensation, which sometimes leads to litigation.
- The risk to a business’s reputation for possibly not having designed and implemented a plan to protect workers from falls.
- A violation of standards and regulations may result in penalties and fines assessed and assigned by OSHA against a company because of falls from heights.
Such risks can devastate both the worker and the business. With the right fall protection plan, businesses can greatly reduce the chance of encountering these unfortunate scenarios.
Organizational safety leaders can develop a fall protection plan that goes beyond personal protective equipment (PPE) such as harnesses, lanyards, and belts. "As important as PPE is to the safety industry, I have found that developing strategies that avoid the need for workers to leave the ground is the ideal fall protection plan, since reduced elevation means reduced risk,” explained Kramer in the webinar. “One important safety strategy involves gauging the risk tolerance for heights-oriented situation."
The practice Kramer mentions may be more well-known industry-wide as hazard identification and assessment, according to OSHA, but it boils down to assessing the task requirements, identified risks, PPE-based risk solutions, and safer risk alternatives, which includes anything that can be done from the ground.
A few ideas that maritime facility owners and operators might keep in mind for developing a solid and manageable fall protection plan include the following:
- Stay updated on OSHA regulations, standards, and recommendations.
- Hire a full-time, on-site health and safety manager who regularly assesses fall risks.
- Focus on finding ways to help employees avoid risks, such as finding a ground-based workaround when possible.
- Inspect gear regularly to ensure its safety and that there is enough equipment available for all employees.
- Schedule regular training exercises to make sure employees know how to use all fall prevention PPE and are physically capable of safely using it.
A well-designed and properly implemented fall protection plan will keep your employees safe from harm while protecting your business from financial losses and a damaged reputation.
Do you still need ideas for developing or improving your own fall protection plan? For additional guidance on fall protection at your facility, contact your AEU Loss Control manager or click here to have someone contact you. ALMA members can access our full resource library of fall protection materials here (login required).