According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), falls are historically the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry, accounting for approximately one third of its fatalities. OSHA has fall protection twice in its 2018 Top 10 List of its most egregious compliance violations. At number one on the list is fall protection general requirement violations and at number eight is fall protection training requirement violations. In the first case, employers were most commonly cited for failing to provide fall protection when needed in a variety of situation, including on roofs or on walking/working surface that were more than six feet above a lower level or that had an unprotected side or edge.
Fall protection is a major safety factor in metal construction
“Three of my uncles worked as roofing contractors during my youth; all three of them suffered at least one major fall without protection in place,” says Joshua Mills, engineered systems specialist, Gravitec Systems Inc., Poulsbo, Wash. “Twenty years after the fall that shattered his pelvis, my uncle Jon still walks with a limp. I often think about how different his life could have been, and by extension the lives of his children, had he had access to some basic fall protection safeguards. It’s 2019. It is unacceptable for our working men and women to be exposed to unnecessary risks that threaten their health and their families’ financial security. What role does total fall protection play? Peace of mind. Safety. Security.”
“Total fall protection is the number one factor in metal construction,” says Dane Hansen, vice president of White Castle Roofing, Lincoln, Neb. “Before we take on a project we analyze what type of fall protection is capable of working for the conditions and how that will affect the project. The number one goal is to keep everyone safe; if it’s not safe, it’s not worth doing.”
Any employee who might be exposed to fall hazards should receive training in recognizing fall hazards and the procedures to follow to minimize them, including the use of a personal fall arrest systems. This article focuses on the personal fall arrest systems that tie off workers, ensure their safety and are requisite to avoid fatalities.
Tying Off is Critical
What is the role of tying fall protection off not only to the worker, but also the structure? Tying off is commonly used slang for workers to use their fall protection system. “Make sure you tie-off,” and “Tie-high or die” are commonly heard phrases on construction sites.
There is no good excuse for failing to tie off. “The role of tying off is critical if a worker should slip or trip,” says Kevin Denis, director of special projects, Gravitec Systems. “A worker could be wearing all the best equipment in the world, but it does little if not connected to any structure. The role of tying off for the worker is life saving, and the role of tying off to the structure is supporting (resisting) the loads imposed by the falling worker.”
To successfully tie off, careful consideration must be given to the selection, materials, construction and inspection/maintenance of fall protection equipment. “There are many fall protection options for roof safety, but choosing the right one will depend on the application and the work to be done at height,” says Anne Osbourne, marketing manager for construction, MSA Safety Inc., Cranberry Township, Pa. When selecting fall protection equipment, three components (generally called the ABCs of fall protection) make up a complete fall protection system. Each one must be in place and correctly attached. These are:
• Body support
Tying off is just one component of a total fall protection system. “A total fall protection system can help ensure workers execute the installation of a roof safely and in an OSHA-compliant and safe manner,” says Jason Giefer, application engineer, 3M’s fall protection division, Red Wing, Minn.
“When applicable, a permanent fall protection anchorage system (such as anchors, lifelines or guardrails) can help ensure workers performing maintenance on the roof are able to perform their tasks in a safe manner while also being OSHA compliant. Buildings that are lacking a fall protection system would also face some level of delay in regular maintenance and/or repair(s). A permanent fall protection system, over time may contribute to the building and appliances (think HVAC units) having a lower cost of ownership.”
Anchorages are commonly referred to as the tie-off point such as an I-beam. “What are you tying off to?” asks Osbourne. “This could an I-beam [rebar, scaffolding, lifeline, etc.] or another type of structure that has been certified to withstand forces generated in a fall event.”
The anchorage is the secure point of attachment for the fall arrest systems. An anchorage connector joins the connecting device to the anchorage, such as a cross-arm strap, beam anchor, D-bolt, hook anchor, etc. Anchorages vary by industries, the job being performed, the installation type and the structure available. Anchorages must be capable of supporting 5,000 pounds of force per worker. They must be high enough for a worker to avoid contact with a lower level should a fall occur.
Structural steel is a very good material to attach an anchor. “Flange-mounted sliding beam anchors are a go-to solution for horizontal beams in applications where a worker needs mobility along the beam and are available in overhead or foot-level models,” says Baxter Byrd, technical writer at Pure Safety Group, Pasadena, Texas. “For angled and vertical beams—or on horizontal beams when a stationary anchor point is desirable—a clamp-style beam anchor fits the bill nicely, combining the fixed-point security you need with ease of installation. Other fixed-point anchors include weld-on posts or D-rings, or those that install via a backer plate. Backer-plate anchors “sandwich,” a compatible beam between two plates using all-thread.”
The anchorage connectors should be positioned to avoid a swing fall. Unfortunately, many people, when working at heights, fail to take swing into consideration. A swing fall hazard can occur when an anchorage point is not positioned directly overhead. Since most workers aren’t standing directly under (or over, in the case of footlevel tie off) the anchor point at the onset of a fall, this means that nearly every fall has some swing potential. If a fall should occur, a worker could swing, like a pendulum, back toward the anchor point. In the process, the worker could strike—with great force and lethal consequences—the structure they are working on or another nearby structure.
The only way to prevent swing is to stay within a certain distance of the anchor point. The further the worker is away from the anchor point, the further they’ll swing and the harder they’ll strike the structure. When a worker stretches 30 feet outside of the anchorage point, move the anchor and examine other fall protection solutions.
“The anchor must be placed in a convenient location and designed so that it is strong enoughto support a fall arrest system,” Giefer says. “Many anchors have been designed with options to connect to various components of the roof and roof materials.”
New forms of anchorage connectors for metal roofs are aiding fall protection such as constant force posts. “The base of the post anchors to (or through) the metal roof and the fall protection system attaches to the ring,” Denis says. “There is an integral energy-absorber in the post that not only reduces the force to the worker, but also works to save the roof (anchorage). Other anchoring options include clamps onto roof seams, door jamb anchors, screw down anchors and even ballasted type anchors.”
Osbourne says there’s a lot more to a fall protection anchorage point than meeting basic strength requirements, since the anchorage is only one part of a larger system. “A certified fall protection system requires a qualified person’s input and documentation not only of equipment, but also of system design and layout, worker training, a rescue plan, and more,” she adds. “Why worry about these factors when you’re justevaluating an anchorage? Again, the answer is that your anchorage’s strength, while important, is only one part of the big picture.”
Body support is the personal protective bodywear equipment worn around the torso by the worker such as a harness. A full-body harness distributes fall arrest forces across the shoulders, thighs and pelvis. Full body harnesses have a center back fall arrest attachment for connection to the fall arrest connecting device, and may have other D-rings for use in worker positioning, fall prevention, suspension or ladder climbing.
Giefer says today’s harnesses are now easier to wear and adjust, and they also include added comfort features built into the product to help increase mobility and help maintain worker productivity. “The harness should be easy to put on and easy to adjust so it fits and protects the worker properly. Any options that help make the harness more comfortable are a great additional benefit.”
Osbourne contends when working at heights, having access to comfortable equipment can make “a world of difference,” especially from the perspective of worker compliance and safety. MSA has invested in designing and manufacturing innovative and comfortable fall protection harnesses. Earlier this year, the company added two new harnesses—the V-FORM and the V-FIT—to its V-Series line of fall protection equipment. The two new harnesses meet industry standards and are ergonomically designed for better comfort. Additionally, they include unique features, such as a patent-pending racing-style buckle, athletic cut and pull-down adjustment that allow workers to quickly secure a fit that best suits them and will last throughout the work day, thereby enabling them to focus exclusively on their work, Osbourne says.
Steel work often includes grinding and welding, both of which can send hot sparks bouncing off the worker. “Harnesses made with Kevlar webbing or a flame-retardant outer shell help prevent burns that can damage webbing integrity and cause harnesses to be removed from service during inspection,” Byrd says. “Similarly, for those who may not perform hot work but who handle sharp lightweight steel—carrying it on their shoulder across the job site—harnesses that include protective covering for shoulder straps help prevent damage and prolong harness life spans.”
Each of the three major fall protection components is vital to worker safety. But in terms of tying off, the connecting device is the critical link in assembling a safe fall protection system since it bears the greatest force during a fall. It connects the worker’s bodywear to the anchorage/anchorage connector.
The most common connectors are lanyards or self-retracting lifelines (SRLs). The potential fall distance must be calculated to determine the type of connecting device to be used. Generally, [less than] 18 1 /2 feet, always use a SRL/fall limiter. Over this height, use a shock-absorbing or SRL/fall limiter. Giefer says connecting devices need to be selected for each roofing application as they differ greatly. “The space to be covered, the slope of the roof, the material of the roof, the clearances, edge sharpness, and duration of use can all be factors in choosing the proper connector.”
Because of the sharp edges found on metal construction job sites, additional care must be taken to ensure the lanyard’s integrity. All fall protection lanyards caution the user to avoid sharp or abrasive edges, but when incidental contact is unavoidable, Byrd says steel constructors might be well-served to think in terms of cable lanyards over web-based models. “Like their web counterparts, cable lanyards are available in single or dual leg configuration with standard snap or rebar hooks, but the steel itself is more tolerant of scuff and edges that can potentially compromise web lanyards. The same can be said of SRLs. The constant withdrawal and retraction of the lifeline as work progresses creates a greater opportunity for the lifeline to be drawn over sharp edges causing damage. The steel constructor can minimize the risk of lifeline damage by always connecting to an overhead anchor, using an SRL with a steel lifeline, and always being aware of the lifeline relative to any abrasion hazards.”
Each component of a personal fall arrest system is connected to each other as a total system. Osbourne advises that since there are also regulations and standards (OSHA, ANSI, CSA) used for testing and manufacturing each of these components, it is important that when making purchasing decisions you are looking for products that have been tested to the latest and greatest standards.