Based on an actual event
Two employees on a safety walk-through at a metalworking plant at 1:30 a.m. noticed a group of contractors insulating the massive exhaust pipe for the plant’s furnace. The team worked about 12 feet above a concrete ditch containing water, exposed rebar, and metal trusses for the pipe to rest upon. One of the team members working from a steel catwalk above the pipe wasn’t using his personal fall protection. The employees had a short, friendly conversation with the team member, pointing out the risk of injury from a fall—including getting impaled on the exposed rebar. The contractor explained that he’d simply forgotten to tie himself off. He thanked the employees and did just that.
The employees moved on. Just a few minutes later, the contractor fell. His harness stopped him six feet above the ditch and he walked away with just a few bruises.
During National Fall Prevention Awareness Week, it’s striking to see that for nine of the past ten years, fall protection has ranked at the top of OSHA’s top 10 list of safety violations, which also includes violations for scaffold requirements, ladder requirements, and fall protection training. Why do falls continue to be a problem? Falls are the second-leading cause of death in the workplace after driving, and the leading cause of death in the construction industry; the costs borne by companies have been estimated at $70 billion annually in the United States alone. Research shows that while falls from height are less common than other types of accidents, when they happen, they are much more likely to be deadly. A fall from as little as six feet can cause a head injury that leads to disability or death. More than the quantity of fall-related incidents, it is the severity that we need to focus on to decrease the number of fatalities.
What can we learn if we look at our example for Serious Injury and Fatality (SIF) precursors? We have a high-risk situation, in potential for fall from height. Management controls broke down, since fall protection wasn’t in place. Was the exposure allowed to continue? This time, this was the key. The exposure was recognized and addressed.
This near-miss would have been an actual serious injury—or worse—if it hadn’t been for three things:
- an observer who had the skills to recognize the danger of the exposure
- a culture that supported approaching others to talk about the exposure, and how to mitigate it
- a team member who not only listened, but took action
If the danger of falling hadn’t been recognized; if it was looked upon as part of a normal day’s work; if the culture at the plant didn’t support approaching others about safety; then our story could have had a very different ending.
What can we learn from this?
When it comes to catastrophic injuries, including falls, most of the time multiple things have to fail simultaneously. Often, you only have to change one of these precursors to break the chain of events, and the injury does not happen. One person can make a difference.
And one conversation can save a life.
Have a safe day.