This week’s blog post continues an ongoing discussion of the risk management issue of fall protection. This time we look at the issue of repeat offenders to violating fall protection rules and from a risk managment point of view there should NOT be any repeat offenders. Falls and fall injuries are very expensive from a risk perspective and allowing anyone to violate them exposes the company to potential liability. As an example, on April 20th, OSHA Region 1 announced a $51,700 fine for American Building LLC, a Trumbull, CT-based steel erection contractor, for alleged violations – one willful and one serious – of workplace safety standards following the Oct. 25, 2011, death of a worker at a construction site in Stamford. OSHA investigators found that:
- employees lacked proper fall protection
- employees were not adequately trained to recognize and avoid fall hazards
- safety harnesses of three of the four employees working on the roof, including the victim, were not tied off to anchorage points
- a fourth employee’s safety lanyard was too long to protect him against a fall
- the employer was well aware that these workers were exposed to falls but did not take steps to eliminate the hazard.
The American Building employees were installing metal roofing onto a prefabricated steel building at the construction site when one of the workers fell 35 feet to the ground and sustained fatal injuries. The employer could also be held financially liable if the fatally injured employee’s family sues for wrongful death or failure to provide a safe work place – provided state labor laws allow these types of law suits. It is clear from this OSHA citation, and others, that OSHA holds employers accountable for fall protection safety, but are employers the only one who should be held accountable.
The Law of Gravity makes fall protection something that is truly needed on construction and other work sites. Gravity is not forgiving and it applies its lesson unequally. I know of one foreman who failed to tie off and fell 20 feet onto steel forms. He broke his pelvis in two places and his wrist. While in rehab, he met a woman who was a quadriplegic after falling off a kitchen ladder replacing a light bulb. Sometimes the law of gravity has a one strike rule and there are no repeat offenders.
A recent most popular discussion thread on the Construction Professionals Forum group on LinkedIn concerns the question: “What should you do with “repeat offenders” regarding the 100% tie-off rules?” It started as a poll on another group and continued on the Construction Professionals Forum. There are four different possible votes:
- Verbal Warning
- Letter of Reprimand
- 3-5 Day Suspension
- Termination of Employment
It has been posted for almost a month. Altogether, almost 100 people voted and over 50 people commented on their votes. The overwhelming top vote getter with 61% was “Termination of Employment.” The comments were very passionate and ranged from forgiving the offender to immediate termination.
Those voting for termination were split into two camps those who were unequivocal in pronouncing “one strike and you’re out” to those who tempered the termination based on clear rules, co-operation with the union, training, etc. Clearly, there are many in industry who feel that employees should be held accountable for their own fall protection.
Where do I fall in this argument? Well I fall into both camps. It is obvious from law suits and OSHA violations that employers are legally and civilly liable for employee fall protection safety. However, employees should not get a free ride because of these liabilities. Employees are also responsible for their own safety and their families depend on them to do the right thing at work.
One commenter quoted Sun-Tzu from the Art of War. Sun-Tzu said that “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.” This quote is possibly the best summation of my position on this debate. It explains the role of management (generals), supervision (officers) and the workers (the soldiers).
I believe that the following responsibilities are required of the employer for fall protection:
- A clear written fall protection policy approved by the highest level of corporate management. The policy must be clear and concise as to what are management’s expectations, what it will supply, how it will monitor compliance and what are the consequences for non-compliance. If you can’t write your own policy you can hire a safety firm to help you.
- Corporate training will be provided to all employees who are exposed to fall hazards or who are involved with the management, supervision or monitoring of those exposed to fall hazards. The training will cover the corporate policy, the equipment the company will supply, the limitations of fall protection equipment, fall protection procedures, fall hazard recognition, the use of fall protection procedures and the disciplinary policy the company will enforce.
Management commitment to and enforcement of the policy is necessary at all levels. It is obvious from observation that where a company has a written clear fall protection policy and the policy is not enforced by management and supervision the unwritten policy of non-enforcement becomes the policy the workers follow. It is NOT good policy to reward or praise workers who finish a job ahead of schedule while ignoring fall protection. Management must also enforce the policies on their sub-contractors as equally as they are on their own employees.
- Executive management must hold supervision and management accountable for enforcement of the company’s policies and procedures across the board. Supervisors who fail to enforce fall protection are putting the workers AND the company at risk. Sometimes they must be terminated for the good of the company. Sometimes the judicious use of discipline is necessary to demonstrate you are serious about this policy.
- The company must supply good fall protection equipment that is properly fitting and routinely inspected by management. Corporate training and refreshers should cover the proper donning of the equipment. This does not absolve the employee from the proper handling and care of the equipment or from having it on the job site.
- Management must supply or designate an adequate number of proper tie-off points. This may include engineering tie-off points into steel before it is erected and tie-off points that are embedded into concrete. The tie-off points need to be designated in the site specific safety plan. If there are no enough appropriate tie-off points then how can you hold employees accountable for not tying off?
- Site specific procedures or safety plans must clearly define the fall protection and other safety policy and procedures at the specific job sites as well detailing the appropriate equipment and the appropriate tie-off points. Employees need to be made aware of these site specific plans and procedures. The site specific procedures and safety plans should be contractually required for all subcontractors as well.
I believe that employees are responsible for the following regarding fall protection:
- You have been made aware of the company’s fall protection policy
- You have been provided and trained in the use of fall protection equipment
- You are responsible for the care and use of your issued fall protection equipment
- You have been made aware of the company’s disciplinary policy
- You are required to use your fall protection equipment when you are exposed to a fall hazard as specified in the site plans and procedures
- You are required to notify management when you encounter a fall hazard that is not addressed in the site specific plans and procedures
- You are responsible for following the company’s fall protection policies and failure to do so may result in termination of employment, serious injury or death.
This is the only way for all of us to protect each other when it comes to fall protection.