Preventing falls doesn't necessarily require any fancy systems, new programs, expensive equipment or burdensome procedures. No, in many instances fall protection is a matter of maintaining some basic common sense.

First, it's important to realize that more accidental deaths are attributed to falls than any other cause except motor vehicle accidents. This holds true across industries, gender lines and age. The only exception is that the number of fall-related deaths is even higher among the elderly. This means falls kill more people than confined space entries, lockout violations, process mishaps and all the other areas that safety professionals address.

Even more alarming is that it's getting worse. The National Safety Council shows every other accidental cause of death to be steadily decreasing since 1950 - except falls. Death caused by falls is the only category that in 50 years of recordkeeping has steadily gotten worse, not better. More than 20 percent of all emergency room visits from accidental injuries are fall-related.

Why has fall protection avoided the same improvements that other safety industry sectors have enjoyed? Stringent OSHA guidelines for fall protection are in place, but obviously what's covered in the guidelines are not the only areas where people are falling or the death/injury rate would not continue to increase.

Stopping the spiral

The following six steps can help your organization stop the upward spiral of injuries and deaths from falls:

1) Have a plan - Have a thorough fall protection plan in place, with frequent training and auditing. A good program that ensures compliance with the OSHA standard will help stop the obvious fall hazards and eliminate "the easy stuff."

2) Keep a clean house - Housekeeping must become a priority. Years ago when I first entered the safety field I had to "sell" the idea that housekeeping went hand-in-hand with safety. Those days are long gone, as today there is no doubt that housekeeping efforts directly reduce hazardous conditions. Housekeeping is specifically tied to fall prevention because poor housekeeping leads to increased tripping hazards, and tripping hazards lead to falls.

3) Value walking surfaces - Walking surfaces must be treated as part of the "process." Your organization probably keeps its products neat and orderly, parts and supplies are filed and categorized, equipment is repaired and maintained and tools are kept in specific places. Yet, as you consider "all that is required to run your organization," walking surfaces are often ignored even though they're used as much as any other aspect of your business and are connected to virtually every other job. Walking surfaces must be inspected, repaired, clearly marked, meticulously maintained and guarded as a huge source of hazards.

4) Prohibit "freelance" climbing - There are countless ways employees "get off the ground," from stairs and ladders to chairs, stools and buckets. These are the easy ones to control. The harder ones include climbing on handrails, riding equipment up where prohibited, leaning off of things and stacking items up to reach the needed height. If allowed, this kind of "freelance" climbing, hoisting and hanging will not only lead to falls but create an air of acceptance for short-cutting jobs, using improper equipment and approving of taking unnecessary risk.

5) Wear the right footwear - Often neglected, proper footwear plays an important role in fall prevention. Shoes or boots become comfortable over time, and employees become reluctant to "break in" a new pair. Consequently, soles become slick, laces break and support gives way.

Have a "boot inspection." They're fun, and you'll be surprised what you'll find. In your next meeting have everyone put their foot on the table for all to see the condition of their soles.

6) Avoid traps - If you asked your employees if they've ever left a trap for someone behind them, they'd all probably say "no." But, little do they know, they could be setting a "fall trap" for someone - including themselves - without realizing it. For example, a welder might typically throw his spent welding rods down on the ground. This presents a trap for employees who could slip and fall on the unexpected welding rod.

Traps like this are all over our workplaces. They seem harmless but present real fall hazards. Even a little spilled coffee can create a fall hazard. A seemingly harmless power cord used for a presentation can be another trap. Little traps are easy to fix but can have catastrophic consequences. Dropped parts, debris on the floor, temporary lines, even a loose piece of paper can serve as a skateboard to the ground if your foot slides the wrong way.

The blink of an eye

Most of us have experienced the sensation of falling. In the blink of an eye you can go from wherever you are to the ground. The principle that falls happen quickly should be used when training employees. There is no room for "reaching over the edge just for one second," "just doing it and coming right back down," "unhooking just to switch sides" or "stepping over the rail one time." It's these momentary departures from fall protection procedures that allow your employees to fall.

`Make sure your fall protection program is in place, being used and checked often. But also make sure you don't pass the easy stuff up. Do your part to stop the upward spiral of fall-related injuries and deaths.

SIDEBAR: Preventing falls on floors (or other same level surfaces)

It's the second leading cause of workplace injuries

  • Keep floors free of holes or structural defects, water, grease and oil, and other potential fall hazards
  • Provide footwear with the tread pattern and soling necessary to prevent slips
  • Provide adequate lighting for all interior and exterior walking surfaces
  • Highlight transitions in floor height
  • Remove snow and ice in parking lots and on sidewalks
  • Use appropriate non-slip floor surfaces, cleaners and waxes

Source: Liberty Mutual 2002 Workplace Safety Index

SIDEBAR: Preventing falls to lower levels

Such as falling from a ladder or over a railing

  • Use appropriate ladders capable of comfortably reaching work or storage heights
  • Use mechanized material handling devices to access higher levels
  • Regularly inspect and repair all ladders and lifting equipment
  • Provide railing protection for areas with abrupt floor level changes (such as a loading dock)
  • Avoid storage of heavy or awkward items above the reach of most workers
  • Provide handrails and slip-resistant treads for all stairs. Avoid storage of any kind on stair treads and walkways
  • Install nets when other types of fall protection cannot be used

Source: Liberty Mutual 2002 Workplace Safety Index

SIDEBAR: ANSI standard aims to reduce slips & falls

The American Society of Safety Engineers is seeking to reaffirm the American National Standard ANSI A1264.1-1995 - Safety Requirements For Workplace Floor and Wall Openings, Stair and Railing Systems.

This standard sets minimum safety requirements for working and walking areas, including fixed stairs, to result in reasonable safety for life and limb of persons pursuing their foreseeable duties.

Safety requirements in industrial and workplace situations are detailed for protecting persons in areas/places where danger exists of persons or object falling through floor or wall openings, or from platforms, runways, ramps and fixed stairs, in normal, temporary, and emergency conditions.

ANSI's standard is not intended to apply to construction, residential or mercantile occupancies except where necessary maintenance or workstation access may be required.

Excluded from the standard are moving stairs/ramps, stairs used for private residences, floating roof tanks or dock facilities, and floor openings occupied by elevators, manlifts, dumbwaiters, conveyors, machinery, containers; the loading and unloading areas of truck, railroad, and marine docks; self-propelled, motorized mobile equipment; and platforms, scaffold, pits, and trenches for the purpose of providing work access to a product or facility.

The full A1264 committee plans to meet during June 2002 to look over the standard and consider revisions for the next iteration of the standard. The basic consensus of the full A1264 committee is that the current standard is still a cogent document, and plays an important role in protecting people from injuries and fatalities. American National Standards have to be revised, withdrawn, or reaffirmed every five years.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this American National Standard, please contact the ASSE Customer Service Department at (847) 699-2929 and ask for Item #3318.