Dave, a friend of mine, worked at a small plastics plant where one of his duties involved closing a valve that was on top of a vessel. Dave would regularly climb up on the structure and reach over to the valve, which was 14 feet above the floor. One day his foot slipped and he fell to the concrete floor, leaving him with a severe head injury.

Injuries are usually severe when someone falls from an elevated work height. Falls are the leading cause of worker fatalities in the construction industry. Each year, approximately 150 - 200 workers are killed, and more than 100,000 are injured as a result of falls at construction sites.

Dave’s fall is typical of an elevated work injury. He was working more than six feet above the floor, the minimum distance triggering some form of protection under OSHA’s fall protection standard. A permanent ladder and landing would have made this a safe job. At the very least, Dave should have been using a ladder.

It’s frightening when I think of the chances that the average worker — or people around the house for that matter — will take when it comes to working at elevated heights.

Here are six ways to protect workers from falls:

1. Handrails on walkways and stairs.

We tend to take handrails for granted, but they definitely prevent falls. Getting employees to use handrails is another challenge. (How often do you use stairs while carrying something with both hands?) But first we must make sure handrails are in place.

2. Portable ladders should be in good condition and used properly.

Have a ladder inspection program in place. Portable ladders must be available. If ladders are stored away from the work area, an employee will stand on a box or, like Dave, simply climb on the equipment. We take the same shortcuts around the house. Rather than go to the garage to get the stepladder, we stand on a chair.

Extension ladders and folding ladders need to be secured, if possible. Tying the ladder to a structure with a piece of rope is always a good policy. Large extension ladders require two people to set them up. We’ve all risked injury by trying to handle ladders that are too heavy for one person.

3. Permanent ladders with cages need to be installed when there is a frequent need to use a ladder in that location.

Systems are now marketed that place a pole inside the ladder cage for attaching a fall protection harness.

4. Use properly installed scaffolding when needed.

A scaffold is the perfect answer to your fall protection needs if you have elevated work that is only done on rare occasions. Be aware that scaffolds need to be erected by trained scaffold builders, and that there are specific rules on how and when they need to be inspected.

5. Install landings and ladders where needed.

If employees frequently need to do tasks at elevated heights, landings with permanent ladders should be installed. If you find that you are repeatedly erecting scaffolds in the same spot, you might save money by putting in a permanent landing.

6. Fall arrest equipment must be provided along with training on its proper use.

Let’s take a close look at fall arrest equipment in the petrochemical industry. Here, employees often work in overhead pipe racks — a number of pipes that are placed side by side and run overhead. They are positioned high enough to enable a tank truck to drive under them. Quite often, an employee has to climb into this rack and walk on the pipes to reach various valves that need to be operated.

The employee wears fall arrest equipment consisting of a harness similar to a vest that is attached to a tie line secured to a piece of equipment.

Wearing the harness correctly and securing the lanyard properly are two items that cause problems:

  • You step into some harnesses like putting on a pair of pants; others are donned similar to a vest. All have several belts and clasps that need to be secured properly.

  • The tie-off lifeline is simple to use, although it inhibits your movement as you work. The technical challenge comes in knowing where to tie off. OSHA standards identify the foot pounds that the tie-off area must sustain. Lifelines must be secured above the point-of-operation to an anchorage or structural member capable of supporting a minimum dead weight of 5,400 pounds. That sounds good, but identifying structures to sustain that weight isn’t always easy, and there aren’t always places above the worker to tie off.

Sidebar: Elevated work practices

Last year, I developed an elevated work practices training module to inform employees of new OSHA guidelines, and to refresh them on other areas of fall protection. When I started thinking about the objectives for the class, I knew there were two basic areas to cover:

1 Students need to understand rules relating to the use of ladders, and must be able to inspect a ladder.

2 They must know how to don a fall arrest harness correctly, and to understand the rules of a proper tie-off.

Ladders: Ladder safety training is relatively simple and can be done with a handout covering rules and inspection data. I also had my class critique videos of ladder use by identifying safe and at-risk practices. Having several volunteers set up a large extension ladder as the rest of the class observes is always effective. If you’ve ever worked with a large extension ladder, you know how hard it is to handle.

Fall protection: Fall protection equipment training is more challenging. Using the harness in actual work situations is the best approach. In my class, we first viewed a short video that demonstrated the correct way to wear a fall arrest harness. Then I divided the class into pairs, and set up a game to see who could put on a harness the fastest. Both members of the team had to put the harness on, and the other team member could help them as they secured the straps and made sure they had the harness on correctly. The game made the exercise fun, and at the same time, the students learned how to don a harness.

The two-member teams were then assigned tasks that required them to use a harness and a lifeline. These were jobs that employees had to do every day.

For example, one student had to climb onto an overhead rack of conduit and put a cover on a connection box. The next student would go to the same area and remove the cover. To do this work safely, students needed to put on a harness and secure a lifeline properly.

A major pitfall of elevated work training is boredom. This is a dry topic that puts a class into a trance if an instructor simply stands before the group and lectures. Keep your training simple and focused on activities. The only way a student learns to use a harness is to use it in a practical activity. And always keep the main objective clear: Working safely in elevated areas prevents serious injuries.