Advances in technology and human creativity - innovations such as air travel and high-rise buildings - have shown our ability to adapt to and even overcome the laws of gravity. But in spite of these advances, the fact remains the same: what goes up must come down.

The workplace is not exempt from the laws of gravity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falls are the second leading cause of workplace deaths and the third most common cause of workplace injury across the nation. Recent statistics show that 808 workers died from falls in 2001. In addition to the human tragedy, falls exact additional costs such as medical expenses, lost work time, insurance, workers' compensation and lost productivity.

However, the good news is that fall incidents are preventable with proper training. The individual worker has total control in preventing workplace falls through gaining the skills and motivation necessary to correctly use the various forms of fall protection equipment and devices that are available today.

Recognizing risks

The first component of a fall protection program is to increase workers' awareness and recognition of potential fall hazards that exist in their work environment. Falls can be caused by a number of different factors, but most can be traced to two main sets of factors: environmental and personal.

Environmental factors relate to the physical working conditions, including exposed high places with unprotected perimeters, or elevated areas without guardrails or other barriers. Personal factors include failing to properly select and use the correct fall protection equipment or disregarding engineering controls and other such protective devices.

Once all potential fall hazards have been identified, the next step is to implement measures to eliminate or control them. This is done through effective planning and the use of engineering controls such as guardrails, scaffolds and platform barriers. These devices offer protection from falls and can also safely elevate the work surface to a desired height.

If exposure to fall hazards cannot be safely eliminated or controlled, or when engineering controls are not feasible, then the next part of a fall protection strategy becomes training workers to properly select and use protective equipment such as fall arrest systems.

Fall arrest systems

When used properly, a personal fall arrest system is designed to stop a person in a fall. There are many different possible configurations for a personal fall arrest system. The equipment you use will depend on your specific job task and working environment. In most cases, a basic fall arrest system consists of an anchorage, connectors, a full body harness and a lanyard. Other components can include a deceleration device or a lifeline.

Full body harness - This personal protective body wear consists of a set of straps worn around the shoulders, thighs, buttocks and hips. An attachment point is in the back of the harness for joining to a connecting device. Only a full body harness is an acceptable body holding device for a personal fall arrest system - body belts and other such devices may only be used as positioning devices, as they do not prevent the person from slipping out of the belt during a fall. When a fall occurs, the full body harness lessens the jolt to the body by spreading most of the impact forces over the buttocks, thighs, chest and shoulders.

Connectors - The most common type of connecting device to a body harness is a lanyard, which joins the full body harness to a secure anchorage. The type of connecting device you use will depend on the potential fall distance, the work being performed and the work environment itself.

Other connecting devices besides lanyards include shock-absorbing lanyards, self-retracting lifelines, rope grabs and fall limiters.

Lanyard - Lanyards are short, flexible lines made of rope, high-tensile webbing or steel cable. The maximum length of a lanyard must not allow a fall of greater than six feet or the worker to come in contact with lower level hazards. The lanyard, which is attached to an anchorage by a means that will not reduce its strength, must have a minimum breaking strength of 5,000 pounds. This must be done with a locking snap-hook. Never tie a knot anywhere in a lanyard; it could reduce its strength by 80 percent or more.

Anchorage - An anchorage is a secure point of attachment for a personal fall arrest system. It must be independent from the means supporting or suspending an employee and capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per worker attached.

The anchorage should also be reachable for attachment without exposure to hazards and located to prevent the worker from contacting a lower level hazard during a fall. The height of the anchorage must allow the fall arrest system to reduce free fall to the shortest possible distance, which must not exceed six feet. It also must not allow the worker to contact any lower level hazard during a fall.

Passing inspection

Fall protection equipment must be inspected by a competent and trained person before each use. Defective components should be removed from service immediately and tagged or marked as unusable. When needed, fall protection devices can be washed in warm water using a mild detergent, rinsed thoroughly and allowed to dry at room temperature.

Using the correct fall protection device for the work situation is a vital step in providing employees with continuous protection from falls, thereby preventing incidents. But the condition of this equipment is equally important.