In 1997, a 26 year old Nebraska man fell from the vertical side of a structure while performing maintenance work. Fortunately, the man was wearing a fall arrest system and his fall was successfully arrested, leaving him suspended in his safety harness. A co-worker and other rescuers quickly lowered the fallen worker to the ground and transported him to a medical facility where he was treated for a mild strain/sprain, and then released.1
His appropriate use of a safety system and the quick, efficient response of his associates saved his life. Many employees who take a fall at work are not so fortunate.
Just a few years earlier, in 1991, an employee in Illinois slipped and fell while performing a similar type of work. His fall, too, was caught by his fall arrest system and he was left suspended fifty vertical feet above the ground. Rescue, however, was not so quickly initiated in this case and the worker died from compression asphyxia while hanging in his harness. His death was directly attributed to the delay in rescue.2
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics3, non-fatal injuries and illnesses involving falls in private industry totaled 255,750 in 1995. In another 735 instances that year, falls from height resulted in death. This adds up to 256,485 incidents where a fall resulted in the need for some sort of response, rescue, or recovery effort.
The majority of workplace falls, of course, are relatively simple "slips and trips" such as might occur on any walking surface, office place, or stairs. These types of falls are typically not catastrophic but are notable in that they may result in injury and/or time lost from work. Beyond these, many workplaces also employ individuals who work at or near the ‘vertical dimension’ in workplaces that involve elevated construction, large machinery, catwalks, container tanks, and other raised surfaces. Falls in these environments are much more likely to result in greater injury, or even death.
Most of the fatal falls that occur in the workplace are the result of the decedent worker's not having utilized any means of fall prevention or arrest. In a disturbing number of cases the worker is actually wearing a safety harness, and perhaps even a lanyard, but is not clipped in to anything. Unprotected falls from elevated work surfaces frequently result in the individual's impacting the ground, clearly negating the need for any complicated rope-rescue response effort.
But what about those incidents in which the worker is left stranded at height – the result of impacting an elevated surface, for example, or perhaps simply left suspended in their safety harness?
Can your organization ensure the rescue of a fallen worker within 4–6 minutes? How about 15 minutes? If not, you may be gambling with your OSHA compliance and jeopardizing the very life of your workers at height.