Don’t get angry when no one does it
Over the past few days I’ve spent a good amount of time working with employees who were preparing demonstrations for an annual safety committee exhibition. One group of maintenance technicians put together a crazy-good display that demonstrated how to properly use fall arrest systems and select adequate anchor points for tie off. In planning for it, we had some great conversations about falling. They were eye opening for everyone.
One of the newer mechanics recounted a fall he’d taken at a former employer. His story was pretty incredible considering the company didn’t provide any fall protection for him. He’d been working on a steel structure for days without any. For some reason, however, he decided to bring his own from home the morning of the fall. Before climbing onto the steel that morning he cinched down the leg straps of his harness. Then he loosened them a notch because they were uncomfortable. Minutes later he was dangling in the air realizing that he’d have died if it had happened any day prior.
Most of the guys cringed as their coworker then graphically described why he regretted loosening his leg straps. Use your imagination, but just know he had problems walking for the next few days. His story completely trumped my parasailing misadventure (let’s just say one of my “boys” got caught in the harness… it was less than majestic).
Why do we use the last defense first?
Fall protection is PPE. It should be the “last line of defense.” It’s amazing to me how many people take that for granted. Employers and employees throw harnesses on without thinking (and often without knowing how) just because. What we should be doing first is asking one all-important question: what happens when (not if) I fall?
- Will I hit the ground and bounce because my arrest device is too long and won’t work?
- Will I swing into a piece of equipment and knock myself out because I’m too far away from my anchorage?
- How will I get down from mid-air before all the blood pools into my legs and becomes septic (suspension trauma), potentially killing me?
- Should I even be wearing a harness or is there a better way to do this job?
Then they started asking really smart questions
We kept discussing the very serious implications and planning needs for fall protection as the group started recounting all of the times they had “tied off” and it really hadn’t been more than a show. One of them (wisely) asked “why do we have to tie off when we’re on ladders?”
“Do you?” I asked in response.
We had a long discussion about that issue, but the long and short of it is that they don’t under normal circumstances. I explained to them that many times additional risk is added to the task when they do. They climb up higher than needed just to attach a lanyard that not only gets in their way, but wouldn’t actually arrest their fall. Once informed of the fact that OSHA doesn’t require fall protection on work platforms (which is what portable ladders are), the group agreed that the “requirement” had never made sense to them in the first place. For my money when it comes to ladders, I’d rather trade a broken bone or two for a dead body dangling in a harness.
I’ve always had a profound respect for work at height. I’ve seen great practices that saved lives and the terrible opposite. Both happen in an instant. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that we shouldn’t cloud something as important as falling to one’s death with trivial, arbitrary rules. Every time we do it turns something vital into a joke that our workers don’t place any real value on.
So what’s the remedy?
Pragmatic policies, training for understanding, and thoughtful planning. Does it need to be more complicated that? The alternative is just getting angry when no one wants to follow your stupid rules.
What do you think?