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May 12, 2016

Does your fall protection plan start at the top?

  • A majority of fatal falls at Washington construction sites were from heights of less than 26 feet.
    Labor & Industries


    A Washington carpenter learned in an instant just how important it is to always use the right fall protection on the job. He’s alive because it.

    Year after year, falls are a leading cause of death in the construction industry. Nationwide, they accounted for over one-third of workplace fatalities in the industry in 2014. In Washington alone, 63 construction workers died from falls between 2000 and 2015. Every one of these deaths was preventable. No construction worker should ever lose their life in an on-the-job fall.

    Last one of the day

    In May 2015, the carpenter and a coworker were removing plywood forms at the top of a backfilled retaining wall being built as part of a highway expansion project. They’d been on the jobsite for about a month, and the carpenter had more than 15 years of experience in the construction industry.

    By late in the afternoon, they had already removed the forms from 300 feet of wall and were working on the last one of the day. The carpenter pulled back on his 5-foot-long crowbar to pop off the plywood, but it didn’t budge. When the crowbar sprung back, he was catapulted over the side of the wall, 25 feet above the ground.

    Photo courtesy of L&I [enlarge]
    Proper fall restraint equipment saved a carpenter last year from falling off this retaining wall above the truck.

    A fall from this height could have been catastrophic, possibly even deadly. In fact, in the last 15 years, 59 percent of fatal falls on Washington construction sites have been from 25 feet or under.

    Thankfully, the carpenter was using a fall protection system tied off to a horizontal lifeline that stopped his fall just over the top of the wall — exactly as it was designed to do. The carpenter was able to pull himself to safety with the help of his coworker without using the deployable line, lifts or ladders that the company had available as part of their rescue plan.

    Commitment to fall safety

    Keeping workers safe from falls on the jobsite starts at the top. Employers are required by state law to follow specific standards including providing fall protection at certain heights, developing fall protection work plans, and inspecting fall arrest and fall restraint systems before each use. Some employers go above and beyond what the law requires and work to foster a culture of safety within a company and on every jobsite.

    The carpenter’s employer, Apollo Inc., takes the commitment to safety seriously. A general contractor operating out of Kennewick for over 20 years, Apollo has one of the best safety records in the industry in Washington state.

    Just a week before the incident, Apollo provided the crew with special training as part of the 2015 Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction. The company invited a safety consultant from the state Department of Labor & Industries to do an on-site safety inspection and talk with the crew about the challenges of fall safety and the importance of following a fall protection plan. A supervisor on site had coached the carpenter on the correct way to use the fall protection system just a day before the fall.

    Most of the time, Apollo provides fall protection equipment for its workers, but when the carpenter wanted to use his own harness, safety specialists at the company made sure to inspect it before allowing him to use it on the job.

    Fall safety resources
    • Information on fall safety and the Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls program can be found at www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/AToZ/StandDown.

    • To request a free safety consultation from L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, go to www.Lni.wa.gov/Safety/Consultation.

    Fall hazards into focus

    Providing and enforcing the use of fall protection equipment is required by Washington law. It should be the beginning, not the endpoint of jobsite fall safety.

    “The number of fatal falls is alarming,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director for L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “Falls are the leading cause of deaths among construction workers each year, and that’s why it’s so important to set aside time during the workday to talk with employees about preventing these tragedies.”

    While not every construction firm is large enough to have a dedicated safety manager, every company can make worker safety the top priority on every job — whether they have two employees or 200. A wealth of information exists to support employers.

    The third annual National Fall Prevention Safety Stand-Down just wrapped up, taking place May 2-6. The Stand-Down promotes taking time out of the workday for employers to talk to their workers about fall hazards and fall safety. Some companies host special events during the Stand-Down, others incorporate fall safety topics into a daily toolbox talk, or do an inspection of ladders or fall protection equipment.

    This year, L&I again joined with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to provide employers with fall protection information. These resources and ideas help employers bring workplace safety and fall prevention into focus for their workers during the Stand-Down.

    Construction work is inherently hazardous, but with the right planning and equipment, deadly falls on the job can be made a thing of the past and every worker can go home safe at the end of the day.

    This Washington carpenter is alive because he and his employer followed the law and did the right thing. Still, there’s more work to be done. Unfortunately, two construction workers have fallen to their death in Washington already this year, one from the roof of a two-story house and the other from a 24-foot extension ladder. Six died from falls in 2015.

    Christina Rappin is a researcher with the Safety & Health Assessment & Research for Prevention program at the state Department of Labor & Industries. The program tracks and investigates workplace deaths in Washington.

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