Identifying and Evaluating Fall Hazards
Fall Hazard Defined
A fall hazard is anything in the workplace that could cause an unintended loss of balance or bodily support and result in a fall. Fall hazards cause accidents such as the following:
- A worker walking near the edge of a loading dock falls to the lower level.
- A worker falls while climbing a defective ladder.
- A weak ladder collapses under the weight of a heavy worker carrying tools.
- A worker carrying a heavy box falls down a stairway.
Despite the examples above, the vast majority of fall hazards are foreseeable. You can identify them and eliminate or control them before they cause injuries.
How to Evaluate Fall Hazards
The purpose of evaluating fall hazards is to determine how serious they are so you can eliminate or control the most serious hazards before they cause injuries. Let's take a look at some important factors to consider when conducting a hazard evaluation:
Identify Potential Falling Issues
One of the best procedures for identifying potential and actual fall hazards is to conduct a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). For construction sites, conduct a Phase Hazard Analysis (PHA). The PHA analyzes the hazards on the project at each phase of construction. Be sure to evaluate each phase of the project from the ground up.
To conduct an effective evaluation, you should involve others: the more eyes you have on a problem, the better. Involve those who may be exposed to fall hazards and their supervisors; they'll help you identify the hazards and determine how to eliminate or control them. Involving others also strengthens your safety and health program. Your workers' compensation insurance carrier and OSHA will also help you evaluate fall hazards. Contact your insurance carrier to request a consultation.
Determine How Workers Will Access Elevated Surfaces to Perform Their Tasks
Will workers be using portable ladders, supported scaffolds, aerial lifts, or suspension platforms to reach their work areas? Which ones will they use? How and where will they use the equipment?
Identify Tasks That Could Expose Workers to Falls
Asking the right questions is extremely important when trying to identify areas and tasks that present a risk of falling. Here are some questions to ask:
- Will workers be using portable ladders, supported scaffolds, aerial lifts, or suspension platforms to reach their work areas?
- Which ones will they use? How and where will they use the equipment?
- Will tasks expose workers to overhead power lines?
- Will they need to use scaffolds, ladders, or aerial lifts on unstable or uneven ground?
- Will they be working during hot, cold, or windy weather? Consider ergonomics.
- Will workers need to frequently lift, bend, or move in ways that put them off balance?
- Will they be working extended shifts that could contribute to fatigue?
Identify Hazardous Work Areas
Being aware of work areas that might pose a fall hazard is also very important. Work areas change regularly, so never assume that a work area that is safe today will be safe tomorrow. Work area factors that could increase the risk of falls include:
- Holes in walking/working surfaces that they could step into or fall through.
- Elevated walking/working surfaces six feet or more above a lower level.
- Skylights and smoke domes that workers could step into or fall through.
- Wall openings such as those for windows or doors that workers could fall through.
- Trenches and other excavations that workers could fall into.
- Walking/working surfaces from which workers could fall onto dangerous equipment.
- Hoist areas where guardrails have been removed to receive materials.
- Sides and edges of walking/working surfaces such as established floors, mezzanines, balconies, and walkways that are four feet or more above a lower level and not protected by guardrails at least 39 inches high.
- Ramps and runways that are not protected by guardrails at least 39 inches high.
- Leading edges - edges of floors, roofs, and decks - that change location as additional sections are added.
- Wells, pits, or shafts not protected with guardrails, fences, barricades, or covers.
Determine How Frequently Workers Will Do Tasks that Expose Them to Falls
The more frequently a worker is exposed to a fall hazard the more likely it is that the worker could fall.
Determine If and How Workers Need to Move
Determine whether workers need to move horizontally, vertically, or in both directions to do their tasks. How workers move to perform tasks can affect their risk of falling. Knowing how they move to perform tasks can help you determine how to protect them.
Determine the Degree of Exposure
Generally, the more workers that are exposed to a fall hazard, the more likely it is one could fall.
Determine Hazardous Walking/Walking Surfaces
Identify walking/working surfaces that could expose workers to fall hazards. Examples: floors, roofs, ramps, bridges, runways, formwork, beams, columns, trusses, and rebar.
The probability, or likelihood, of a fall depends primarily on on three factors (there are others):
- Frequency of exposure. The more frequently a worker is exposed to a fall hazard the more likely it is that the worker could fall.
- Duration of exposure. The longer a worker is exposed to a particular hazard, the greater the likelihood of a fall.
- Scope of exposure. The greater the number of workers exposed to a hazard, or the greater number of similar hazards in a given area increases the likelihood of a fall.
Severity is an estimate of how serious the injury will be as a result of a fall. Estimating the severity of an injury for any given fall is difficult as it is really a matter of chance or luck. A basic rule of thumb when it comes to severity of an injury after a fall is that, "it's not the fall that gets you, it's that sudden deceleration after." Seriously, the factors that determines the severity of a fall include:
- Distance of the fall. A person in free-fall will accelerate until he or she reaches a terminal velocity of about 120 mph. As you can see by watching the video to the right, this does not always mean the body will suffer a fatal injury. Severity depends on the other factors as well.
- Speed of deceleration. The faster you stops or decelerate, the greater the impact forces on the body and severity of injury.
- Nature of the surface. The "hardness" of the surface upon which the worker falls affects the intensity of the impact and the severity of injury.
- Orientation of the body at impact. This is where the "luck" factor in a fall applies. While people fallen out of airplanes and lived, yet, other have fallen only a few feet and died. Severity of the injury also depends on the position of the body when it strikes the surface, and that is a matter of luck more than anything else.
Determine Fall Distances
Determine fall distances from walking/working surfaces to lower levels. Generally, workers must be protected from fall hazards on walking/working surfaces where they could fall four feet or more to a lower level.
Here are some examples of fall hazards from which employees must be protected by the “four foot rule”:
- Holes and skylights in walking/working surfaces
- Wall openings that have an inside bottom edge less than 39 inches above a walking/working surface
- Established floors, mezzanines, balconies, and walkways with unprotected sides and edges
At any height, workers must also be protected from falling onto or into dangerous equipment.
Controlling Fall Hazards and Exposure
Controlling hazards in the workplace, no matter what the situation, is generally done using a systematic method call the “Hierarchy of Controls.” It’s important to use this method, especially for fall protection. In descending order of preference, the hierarchy of controls for fall protection is as follows:
- Elimination or substitution. For example, eliminate a hazard by lowering the work surface to ground level, or move (substitute) a process, sequence or procedure to a different location so that workers no longer approach a fall hazard. A common method is to use an extension tool that allows the worker to get the job done from ground level.
- Engineering controls. Isolate or separate the hazard from workers through the use of guardrails or covers over exposed floor openings.
- Administrative controls. These work practices or procedures signal or warn a worker to avoid approaching a fall hazard. Policies and procedures for using fall protection equipment and inspection procedures while working at elevation are examples of administrative controls.
- Fall protection equipment. Fall protection equipment is used in conjunction with the other controls, and success is determined primarily by the quality of the equipment and the compliance to procedures. The primary uses for fall protection equipment are:
- Fall restraint – to keep the worker away from the fall hazard to prevent a fall.
- Fall arrest – to prevent injury if the worker does fall.
- Safety nets – to safely catch the worker if a fall occurs.
It’s important to understand that the first priority is to eliminate the hazard. Never work at elevation if you don’t have to. Doing so may not prevent a fall, but it will likely decrease both the probability and severity of the injury.
Residential Fall Protection
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