Attention safety professionals, have you ever heard this before? “Hey, safety-man, why are you giving me a hard time about wearing that stupid safety harness?” “I’ve been doing this job for years, longer than you’ve been with the company and I’ve never had a problem before.” Have you ever heard a statement like that or something similar? How did you handle the situation? Did you remain calm or did you lose you temper a little? Did you counter with facts about previous falls from heights and fatalities from falls, did you lose your cool and shout back, or did you just walk away?

As safety professionals we know that OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration) requires employers to provide fall protection for employees 6 feet (1.8 m) above the ground in their subpart M standards (OSHA, 2016). We know that falls are a leading cause of death on constructions sites, we hear it all the time. OSHA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), safety journals and safety associations talk about it all the time. But does the workforce know this? Do they really know what is required to protect them at heights?

The latest BLS stats for 2014 show that we may not be learning from accidents, because fatal falls, slips, and trips are still high. The 2014 BLS report: Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary show this to be the case. “Fatal falls, slips, and trips were up 10 percent in 2014 from the previous year. Falls to lower level were up 9 percent to 647 from 595 in 2013, and falls on the same level increased 17 percent. In 532 of the 647 fatal falls to lower level, the height of the fall was known. Of those cases in which the height of fall was known, four-fifths involved falls of 30 feet or less (427) while about two-thirds (340) involved falls of 20 feet or less (BLS, 2016).” Does your workforce working at heights know this? Do they even care?

What can we do? That is a hard, and at the same time, an easy question for us as safety professionals to answer. We know and understand the rules/standards for work at heights. But are they really implemented and followed on site? Is our training for work at heights up to par? Is our company policy for work at heights strong enough? Are we enforcing high work at heights standards each and every day we walk our jobsites? Does construction supervision and management hold employees accountable for work at heights violations? Many questions can be asked here, too many. If you said no to any of these questions, then we still have work to do as a safety professional.

Training: Have you attended your company’s work at heights training? Unless you presented it, or reviewed it, you may not know if it meets the mark or not. Is the trainer engaging his students and determining if his students are understanding the material or not? Is the material up-to-date with the latest OSHA standards? These are the easy fixes here, we as safety professionals can fix our own material and trainers in-house. We need to ensure our training material is correct. Ensure our trainers are training to the highest level. We must check what their students learned in the class and that we follow up later in the field to see how well it is applied. Easy, Right?

 Policy: Have we dusted off the company safety policies lately and checked that they are compliant to the latest OSHA requirements? Have we ensured that construction supervision has read them and that they understand them? If not, then we must have them read them, before they can enforce them.

 Maintain High Standards: When you walk your jobsite, you must work with the construction team daily where work at heights is ongoing and let them know, that you will not accept anything less than 100% work at heights compliance. It’s not easy, but it is a must.

Accountability: Accountability for work at heights violations is an unwanted evil that we as safety professionals must face. Employees must know that any violation of work at heights procedures is unacceptable and actions must be taken. There can only be “Zero Tolerance” for work at heights violations. If we slack up and someone dies, who really is at fault then? Action does not always mean you fire someone, there are positive ways to take action to get the point across. Have violators explain what they did wrong and how they can stop from doing it again. If they want to talk about it to their peers, can they do it a toolbox talk setting or in other ways? How can the violator help others to learn from his mistake? There will be times that harsher penalties will be needed. These have to be seen as coming from construction leadership and not us as safety professionals for these penalties to have an impact with the workforce. It can’t just be seen as coming from “Safety”. That approach will only get you so far, but it will never carry you over the top.

  Awareness: Is your safety awareness program running at top speed, or is it in super low “granny” gear? Check that your safety posters are effective, that you change them up and that we have them in the right areas. i.e. breakrooms, walkways, entrance areas and other places they can be easily seen. Use unique posters that catch the eye, but try and stay away from the gory ones, some people will ignore those. Do TBT’s (Toolbox Talks) address the issue of work at heights, are we using safety stand-down’s to talk about work at heights? Is work at heights addressed properly in our method statements and risk analysis? Has the method statement and risk analysis been communicated with the employees doing the work? Do we do “point of work safety talks” where work at height work is actually occurring to address the local hazards of falls at those locations? Awareness is a major point to remember in preventing falls. If we keep the workforce aware, then maybe they will make better decisions in their work and follow your work at heights requirements better.

These are just a few of the things that we must do to help ensure we prevent falls on the jobsite. We can list many other things to do, but we have to have a starting point. These 5 things are that good starting point. You may come up with more or even want to change them around, that’s “ok” because it is for you to determine as the safety professional for your site.

What challenges do you face with work at heights compliance on your sites?

References

Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary. (BLS, 2016). Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm

OSHA Subpart M Standard 1926. (OSHA, 2016). Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARDS&p_id=10757

Work at Heights Training is required for any employee working at height.

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