Employers still catching up on updated fall protection rules

Employers continue to struggle with fall prevention and protection more than two years after federal regulators updated workplace safety rules in an effort to reduce fall-related fatalities, experts say.

With falls killing more workers than ever in recent years, employers should place a renewed focus on reevaluating and managing the risk, they say.

“I think (employers) are still getting the updates to their facilities into their budgetary cycles,” said Thomas E. Kramer, managing principal of LJB Inc., a firm that provides engineering safety consulting out of its Miamisburg, Ohio, office. “Plus, for roof fall hazards, the most economical time to address these issues is during a reroofing, so this may take a generation of roofs, 10 to 20 years, before we’ve seen significant changes.”

Oftentimes, it takes a few years for employers to catch up with changes to U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, said Trever Neuroth, attorney in the Reston, Virginia, office of Jackson Lewis P.C., who represents employers on OSHA compliance. “I think the rule change has the potential to make an impact (on workers compensation claims), but I’m not sure if we’re seeing it yet,” he said.

The top OSHA-cited violation for eight years, fall prevention and protection regulations established in 1971 were revamped in 2016, requiring employers to assess their worksites for fall hazards and to have documentation of compliance, among other changes, according to Mr. Kramer, who also presented to a group of safety professionals at the Volunteer Protection Program Participants Association’s Safety +, Integrated Safety & Health Management Systems Symposium in New Orleans on Thursday.

The standards change was also “meant to improve employers’ consistency between their operations, whether or not they are a fixed facility, construction site or combination of both,” said Steve Martino, Mission Viejo, California-based senior loss control consultant for AmTrust Financial Services Inc.

One of the main changes is that work site assessment requirements now apply to fall protection, said Mr. Kramer. The “intent is for proactive hazard identification” as well as giving employers a chance to fix a growing problem.

The change helped bring awareness to fall hazards that may have been overlooked, such as skylights and single-story roofs, he said, which aren’t always recognized as a fall hazard despite exceeding fall hazard height limits under OSHA standards. He said he also sees improvements being made in the erection and maintenance of scaffolding and employers’ recognition of its importance during construction.

Loading docks higher than 48 inches from the ground are another fall hazard that the new standards helped employers recognize and mitigate through the use of guardrail or safety net systems, said Mr. Neuroth.

Despite the updates, workplace fatalities from falls reached an all-time high of 887 in 2017 from a low of 651 in 1995, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, despite an increase in fall protection gear available in the marketplace, said Mr. Kramer, which he said shows that the industry leans too heavily on personal protective gear and not enough on other strategies, such as installing guardrails.

“It’s easy to buy some lanyards and harnesses and think everyone is safe,” he wrote in a follow-up email. “However, the stats … tell a different story. This is obviously a complex situation with lots of failure modes and issues that contribute, which is why we need better processes in all of these areas.”

One strategy is to create a targeted list of issues that need to be addressed, Mr. Kramer said.

“A common approach is reactionary; you walk through your facility and you have this scattered approach,” discovering a multitude of problems, he said. “We try to say, think of it as strategic. Let’s have a risk management approach. OSHA realizes you can’t address every hazard overnight. You need to have some process in place.”

Training is also key, said Mr. Martino, noting that 80% of accidents are primarily related to some inattention or carelessness on behalf of a worker.

“You can do as much as you want to protect the employee, but people are still going to jump off the last rung of a ladder or not pay attention to whether or not they’re too high and need some type of fall protection,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that we have to really continue to reinforce with employees, that it’s very important to their health and well-being, and they need to be diligent themselves.”

Focusing on ensuring workers are sent home safely every night can also help with compliance, said Mr. Neuroth, who says disciplining for violations in a consistent manner is also important.

“Make sure employees know that the company wants to establish an atmosphere of safety,” he said. “Discipline should still be couched as, ‘We want to send you home safely. If you’re obviously not getting the message, we’re going to discipline you and anyone else who breaks the rules.’”

This article was first published by Business Insurance.

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