Each year, about 12,000 people die from falls in the United States. Fall-related accidents account for about 10% of all workplace fatalities. However, forensic investigations nearly always show these falls were preventable. What are you doing to prevent falls in your workplace? Are you practicing fall protection?

The most effective way to address fall hazards is to eliminate the hazard. This is the preferred method of fall protection, and it often takes place during the initial design of a facility. Unfortunately, hazard elimination can be prohibitively expensive. Hazard elimination begins with a thorough investigation of the work practices involved in operating and maintaining your facility. Your operational and maintenance personnel are invaluable to this process.

In some cases, you can eliminate only a portion of the hazard. If the cost of implementation is high enough to rule out total elimination, then the next best thing is to look at a partial elimination strategy. For example, if you often must replace a motor that is 20 ft above a process oven, upgrading to a motor with a higher temperature rating will reduce the number of failures and resultant change-outs needed.

Traditional fall protection is the next best solution, if hazard elimination is not an option. Traditional fall protection is a secondary system put in place to prevent you from falling. It is a passive system that does not allow you access to the hazard. It requires minimal or no training, and many workers can use the system at one time.

You have examples of this all around you. Railings prevent you from stepping over a precipice. Cages on permanent ladders keep you from falling backward. If you’ve seen those red tape barriers around pits, you’ve seen yet another example.

If you have an MCC on a mezzanine, what traditional fall protection could you install? What about rooftop air handlers? Because of a high effectiveness to cost ratio, traditional fall protection is the first place to look.

After you address hazards via elimination and traditional fall protection, look at fall restraint. This is effective, providing you don’t have to access the fall hazard directly. Fall restraint is a secondary system that involves the use of a secure anchorage and a short tether connected to your full body harness. The tether allows you to reach the work area, but prevents you from reaching the fall hazard. Fall restraints require you to have training in the applicable legislation, recognition of the hazard, and the proper use and inspection of your equipment.

Typically, fall restraint systems are inexpensive and easy to install. In some circumstances, regulations may permit you to use a waist belt for fall restraint. However, a waist belt has its own hazards, and most experts recommend a full body harness. The next level of protection is known as a fall arrest system.

Fall arrest systems vary from simple to very complex. Making the proper choice depends on the situation and the area you want to protect. For fall arrest, you can use only full body harnesses. Anyone using fall arrest systems or equipment requires training in the applicable legislation, recognition of the hazard, setup and compatibility of the system, inspection of equipment, and rescue of a suspended worker. Fall arrest systems range from inexpensive to costly.

Your last option is to use the work procedure itself as your first and only line of defense. You’ll find cases where it simply isn’t feasible to use a fall protection system. This option is acceptable only when it’s impossible to perform the work using a conventional fall protection system or when it’s technologically impossible to use any one of the systems mentioned earlier.

In practice, this is what some companies try to do across the board. Be aware, however, that this type of policy violates a fundamental concept of management: People don’t always follow the rules.

Are there acceptable reasons for not requiring workers to use fall protection? Sure. For example, it makes no sense to use fall protection if you are more at risk when installing the fall protection system than doing the job itself. In most cases, however, not using a fall protection system is inexcusable. For example, it’s not acceptable to use cost as an excuse. If it costs too much to do the job safely, then find a different way to do the work or eliminate the task completely.

How can you do this? Suppose you have a preventive maintenance task that requires climbing onto an elevated platform to perform insulation resistance tests. By installing an automated I-R tester, you eliminate the need to make the climb.

Make sure you establish fall protection work procedures for all fall restraint and arrest systems to ensure proper use, inspection, installation, dismantling, and storage.

Workers require training involving applicable regulations and hazard recognition. They also must be intimately familiar with approved work procedures. If you continually train your crews on these procedures and employ the proven training principle of repetition, then you dramatically improve compliance.

Reliable fall protection, like all matters of safety, requires managers and supervisors to put policies in place and personally enforce them. The small investment in the proper equipment and training means a huge cost avoidance. You also reduce the loss of human life, which is reason enough to be diligent in your safety efforts.

Lough is Manager of Engineering Services for Gravitec Systems Inc., in Bainbridge Island, Wash.