Protection and prevention of falling in construction and hazardous activity occupations continue to be an ongoing process with many new designs appearing annually to help prevent injury or death. To the layman, this issue may be as simple as making sure one has a harness, but fall protection and fall restraint have developed into a complex science. Experience and medical study have found new issues that can occur with safety equipment.
Fall protection is mandated by local, state and federal law on any construction site or hazardous activity involving heights. Yet, annually there are still more than 100,000 occupational falling accidents that end with a significant injury or worse. And, no surprise, in construction, falling from heights is still the No. 1 killer of employees in the industry.
However, the damage of falls doesn’t stop with the actual incident. It also includes significant costs with ongoing medical support, workers' compensation costs, insurance and rating of risk, regulation and investigations and legal costs. So it’s in a company’s best interest to try to use the best protection systems possible to prevent falls.
When discussing fall protection, fall restraint is not an alternative approach; the topic is a subset system of the fall protection concept. Fall protection is the name given to the entire science of protecting employees who have to function far off the ground. It includes the studies, science, regulators and vendors involved that sell the equipment.
Fall Prevention Systems
The most common prevention system that exists is in the form of a handrail or barrier to prevent crossing over. Rails don’t always stop travel into risky zones, however. They are simple systems that provide protection to the masses with very little thinking involved, but people still fall over/through/under handrails all the time.
Ladder cages are another general fall prevention system, but they only works if the person falling off a ladder grabs one of the cage bars. If they fall straight down, which is common in ladder accidents, then the cage is just about useless.
When someone has actually fallen off a ledge and his body harness catches him some distance, this is a fall arrest. It stops the fall in mid-action. However, injuries can still occur. Significant damage can occur from the arrest jolt, depending on the falling speed. Additionally, if an employee is left hanging too long, it can cause serious pooling of the blood system in the extremities. When released, some victims have suffered circulatory crashes of their systems within 24 hours and died of cardiac arrest.
Fall Restraint Systems
Fall restraint equipment is the actual safety gear that is used to prevent falling while working at heights. It can be as simple as a belt with a hook to being as complex as an entire body harness and fall speed reduction system with impact buffers. However, unique to fall restraint systems rather than old-fashioned harnesses is they make sure the worker never gets close enough to fall off a ledge in the first place.
A proper fall restraint system uses a shortened strap, rope or strap attached to a secure surface with the other end attached to the employee. The restraint system is a shorter distance making sure the employee can’t walk out enough to fall in the first place. Again, prevention tends to be the least harmful, the best in protection and least costly of all fall protection aspects.