Work safely from any height Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

Fall protection should be a vital part of any construction project, according to Jeffrey Spatz, senior safety consultant with The Graham Company. In an industry fraught with risks, falls are a leading cause of serious injury and death. Virtually every construction project is going to have some sort of fall exposures.

“Sadly, according to statistics, we estimate that approximately 1,200 construction workers will die in 2008 from accidents on the job site and, of these, about 400 of them will be from falls,” Spatz says. “This is unacceptable.”

Smart Business recently spoke to Spatz about this topic to learn more about the safety standards for construction workers.

What is fall protection?

Simply put, it’s making sure no one falls while at work. Practically speaking, it’s taking the necessary preventive and protective steps to protect people from falls.

While this may be easier said than done, proper fall protection has become an absolute necessity and there are more fall protection products, means and methods available to implement today than ever before. Saying that it’s too hard or too costly has become an increasingly weaker argument.

What is the Occcupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) take on fall protection?

OSHA has thrown some possible confusion into their construction standards by having different trigger heights for fall protection. For instance, if you are working at an unprotected side or edge greater than 6 feet above a lower level without fall protection, you would most likely be in violation of OSHA’s fall protection standard. But, someone working from a scaffold at 9 feet on the same project would be covered under the scaffold standard instead and, in most instances, would be allowed to work up to heights of 10 feet without fall protection. For ironworkers, these heights range from 15 to 30 feet before fall protection is required, depending upon their tasks.

This disparity has given rise to an increasing focus on what’s called ‘100 percent fall protection.’ You’ll hear that term used when an owner of a project or the general contractor or construction manager institutes a policy where there’s a requirement for fall protection for any and all personnel working at heights of 6 feet or more, regardless of the work that they are performing.

Why don’t more contractors use 100 percent fall protection?

Both the execution and practical application have challenges. I’m an advocate of 100 percent fall protection, but it requires a fairly significant amount of planning in the design phase, during the bidding process and long before contractors mobilize on the project. Contractors who seem to have the most difficulty are those who have not had sufficient opportunity to plan for it or have not chosen to plan for it.

Although it’s over and above the OSHA requirements, it’s gaining momentum and more general contractors, construction managers and project owners are pushing it. More insurance carriers, who are underwriting the risk for these contractors and projects, are pushing this policy, as well, and I think they’ve been a major force behind it.

Who should be concerned about preventing falls?

Employers with employees exposed to falls. Keep in mind that OSHA holds employers responsible for protecting their employees and ensuring that they’re properly trained in fall protection. So if you have a construction company with employees who may be exposed to falls, it’s your responsibility to make sure that they’re properly trained. You can’t assume they’re adequately trained; you must train them or verify the adequacy of any previous training. It seems to me that verifying adequacy of training given by another employer is tricky — you should simply train/retrain them as necessary to be sure.

What other policies are out there?

Several of our clients have instituted a guardrail disruption permit process. While a building is under construction, often the perimeters of the upper floors are guarded by cable guardrail systems. There have been problems in the past where a subcontractor who wants to load materials into the floors will take down the guardrail cable, load the materials in and either not put the cable back up or do it improperly. With this guardrail disruption permit process, anyone who wishes to disrupt the perimeter guardrail system has to go through the general contractor first and complete the permit. The general contractor then will have a crew of trained personnel take the guardrail down, allow the subcontractor to do whatever work it has to do, and then put the cable back up so that it meets the necessary criteria for strength and deflection. It’s something I’ve seen in use on high-rise projects, and I think it works well. I think it saves lives.

What else can be done to ensure safety?

Adequate training is one of the things we need to focus on more than anything. When it comes to training, the details really do matter. Training should be thorough. A 15-minute video may not cut it when we’re talking life and death.

JEFFREY SPATZ is a senior safety consultant for The Graham Company. Reach him at (215) 701-5454 or