Fall Protection: Whoops I Fell And I Wasn’t Tied Off

I know that I promised a blog post on accident investigation, but I have not finished it yet.  Mental block.

I want to start this post with a rhetorical question – If you fall in an accident, what is the worst thing that can happen to you?  I know that many of you will have an answer and there will be conflicting answers.  Some of the financial people will argue that one outcome is financially devastating versus another outcome.  Other will argue over the different types of injury that results from a fall.  I have written previously, and will argue vehemently, that “You Never Fall Alone.

But one thing is very clear, no matter what the outcome, once you fall you will never be the same again.

I want to share a story to demonstrate my argument.  The names, places and times are changed to protect the guilty.

A few years ago, just before Memorial Day, I was visiting a job site in the Bronx.  The first day I was there that week, I observed the foreman, Harold Wilson, climbing all over a deep excavation without any fall protection.  Needless to say, I was pissed.  I grabbed the safety person, Denise Howard, for the site and asked her why he was doing this and what was she going to do about it.  I got the usual wimpy answer from her that she talked to him and he wasn’t paying attention to her.  I approached Harold and tried to explain to him how much his falling would affect his family, etc., etc., etc.

Later that week, I visited the same job site again.  And Harold was wearing his PFAS harness, but he was climbing all over the excavation without being tie-off.  I looked at Denise and she just shrugged her shoulders.  I stopped Harold and told him to tie-off.  I called the Vice President of Operations and told him that I wanted to meet him at the site first thing, the next morning.  I was livid.

The next morning, I arrived at the site about 8AM and I was met by the VP who said “Thank God, they got a hold of you.  We had an accident.  Harold Wilson fell and he was taken to the hospital.”  My first thought was “Is he okay?”

To make a long story shorter, Harold fell 35 feet and landed on a set of steel concrete forms.  He broke his pelvis in two places and his wrist.  And he climbed out of the hole unaided.  He was taken to a local hospital and I spent most of the day trying to ensure that nurse case managers and people were in place to ensure that Harold would be properly taken care of and, once stabilized, moved closer to his home and his pregnant wife in New Jersey.

Two and a half months later, Harold returned to work.  When he got back, he was a changed man.  Fall protection was something that he was very serious about.  The job that he was assigned to had zero non-compliance for fall protection after he arrived.  I asked him what changed him.  He told me the following story.

“When I got to the hospital in Jersey, I was sent to rehab immediately.  I was wheeled into the room on a stretcher and was waiting for the therapist to treat me.  A very young and pretty woman asked me what I was.  I told her that I fell and I was going into rehab.  She said ‘Duh.  Everybody here fell.  What are you?’

I told her that I was a construction worker and I fell 35 feet onto concrete forms.  She said, ‘No, not that.  Are you a para, a quad or what?’  I had no idea what she was asking so I told her that I broke my pelvis in two places and my wrist.

She asked if I was paralyzed in any way.  I told her, no the doctors said I should be back to work in about three months.

I asked her why she was here.  She told me that she was a marathon runner, a wife and a mother of two small children – a two year old girl and a 3 month old baby boy.  And she fell from a step stool while changing the light in her kitchen.

I asked her when she was going home.  She told me that first she would be going to a rehab facility to learn how to get around the house.  And she said that her house had to get modified.

I was a little unsure what she was talking about and I guess my face showed my confusion.  She then said ‘Oh, I forgot to explain.  I am a quadriplegic.  I will never walk or use my arms again.’  As tears came down her face, she added that she would never be able to hold her children or hug her husband ever again.

Her fall was only four feet.  And her life and the life of her family will never be the same again.

Harold knows that he was extremely lucky and he knows that if he ever falls again he may not be that lucky.  If you look at OSHA’s FATCAT statistics, you will see workplace fatalities every month.  A large percentage of these fatalities are due to falls.  And it doesn’t matter how far you fall or what shape you are in, sometimes the outcome is a matter of chance.

Again, if you fall and you are not tie off, what is the worst thing that can happen to you?

(c) John Burke, CSP. 2013.


About homelandsafety

John Burke, CSP, ARM is currently seeking new opprtunties in the Safety and Risk Managment field. Previously, John was manager of health and safety compliance of Homeland Safety. John is a Certified Safety Professional and holds a designation as an Associate in Risk Management. He has been in the safety business since 1997 as a safety consultant, developer of emergency response plans, trainer and safety engineer and manager. John was also a Facility Security Officer and trainer under DHS/USCG regulations. Prior to joining Homeland, John was a technical consultant for a major insurance company and environmental and safety manager for a NY based utility. John also has experience as a firefighter and EMT. John has been an authorized OSHA construction outreach instructor and has developed and conducted training courses for construction and general safety, fire safety, incident command and emergency response. John previously taught first aid and CPR under the American Red Cross. John is a former marine engineer. He graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy (BS), Adelphi University (MBA), and NY Institute of Technology (Graduate Certificate).
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One Response to Fall Protection: Whoops I Fell And I Wasn’t Tied Off

  1. Reminds me of one of my safety lectures; “The Plastic Banana Story.”
    I was on a panel at a safety conference when a member of the audience asked; “But how do you make employees follow safety rules? I can’t get our fork truck drivers to wear seat belts.”

    It was hard for me not to wave my hand and yell; “Let me answer. Let me answer.” The moderator wisely turned to me and asked if I’d like to respond. This is my response to the question.

    When I was a young father, we had a bowl of plastic fruit on the coffee table. One day my two year old son toddled in and grabbed one of the plastic bananas. I gently took it away from him and placed it back in the bowl. He didn’t cry, he just said “Want nanner.”
    In response, I gently explained that this wasn’t really a banana, it was just to look at.
    His response? “Want nanner.”
    At that point, I picked up the plastic fruit and banged it on the coffee table, again explaining it wasn’t a real banana.
    His response? “Want nanner.”
    This little give and take continued for a couple of more minutes until I just looked at him and said very firmly. “NO! You can’t have this ‘banana’!”
    To which he replied; “OK.” And wandered off to do something else.

    When we’re endeavoring to improve safety, one of the first things we have to do is get “buy in.” Employees should be educated on the hazards and ways to mitigate same.
    This education should be followed with active inspections to ensure the safety rules are being followed and protocols / equipment properly used.
    If we find deficiencies, we should attempt to again try to get “buy in.”
    But … if after all our efforts to educate and train fail to ensure compliance, you have to fall back to being the parent and firmly enforcing the rules.
    If you can’t do that … you have no business being a safety person … or a parent.

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