Recent studies have identified the utility sector as an industry vertical with high fatalities and injury rates. In 2018, the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries listed electrical power line installers and repairers among the top 10 civilian occupations with at least five times higher injury rates than other workers. This report also detailed the most dangerous occupational injuries, including falls, slips and trips, exposure to harmful substances or environments, and fires and explosions. Utility professionals often face these extreme risks daily.
There are certain precautions that every utility professional and employer can implement to improve safety standards — starting with fall protection equipment. OSHA updated their rules and regulations in 2014, impacting fall protection for the electrical utility industry and setting a goal of reducing additional workplace injuries and fatalities each year. According to the US Department of Labor, the most violated OSHA standards in 2018 included fall protection equipment and inadequate fall protection training.
OSHA standards stipulate that employers have a duty to provide fall protection equipment to employees working at height. Additionally, OSHA standards state “the employer shall provide for prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall or shall ensure that employees are able to rescue themselves.”
The Post-Fall Condition
Traditionally, fall protection equipment is designed to stop a fall, but may not be equipped to perform adequately in a post-fall condition. A post-fall situation is defined as the state of being after an individual falls and is hanging in the air, protected from the full height of the fall by their fall protection harness and lifeline. Protecting users from the fall has always been the main focus of fall protection product design. However, more attention has recently turned to the negative ramifications that the post-fall condition can pose to users. Ideally, fall protection equipment prevents the worker from impacting the ground or other objects during a fall, but they could still be in danger. After the fall, the worker will need to be brought down to a safe location and have any trauma attended to, whether it occurred prior to or as a result of the fall. This component of fall protection is referred to as “descent” or “rescue” and is often overlooked, even though it is mandated by OSHA.
In a post-fall condition, many users find themselves hanging upright and motionless while they await rescue. This position can result in pressure on major arteries and excess accumulation of blood in the legs, reducing the overall blood circulation throughout the body. These bodily stressors can result in a condition called Suspension Trauma. When this happens, the reduction in circulation can cause fainting, loss of consciousness, and even renal failure (the inability of the kidneys to function as they should). In the case of suspension trauma, the kidneys can be negatively affected by the exposure to excess oxygen. In extreme circumstances, these physical consequences may result in a serious or fatal injury within 30 minutes of a fall. The presence of pre-existing injuries, environmental pressures, and increased stress on the body can all accelerate suspension trauma for the user during the rescue process. Increased stress may result in a more difficult or complicated rescue process and also can expose rescuers to safety risks.
To reduce the risk of suspension trauma in the post-fall condition, manufacturers such as Werner have designed and manufactured fall protection equipment that allows the user to either self-rescue or situate themselves into a safer hanging position. Because maintaining proper blood flow during suspension is crucial to avoid pressure on the arteries or internal injuries, some fall protection harnesses are now designed to assist users in bending at the knees and hips while in a post-fall condition. This helps alleviate pressure to the major femoral and carotid arteries, promoting proper blood flow to the rest of the body while awaiting rescue.
Attaining a “Chair in the Air” Position
Manufacturers have developed products to address the specific risks of suspension trauma for utility professionals and their employers. For example, Werner developed the Blue Armor Fall Protection Harness to address post-fall stress. This harness allows users to shift their weight into a “Chair in the Air” position, resembling a typical seated pose, which helps to alleviate suspension trauma. It will also allow the user to reach a safe and seated position and instantly relieve pressure in the groin area while permitting better blood flow.
Along with allowing the user to achieve the “Chair in the Air” position, manufacturers have begun designing fall protection harnesses that address each of the post-fall pain points — femoral arteries, throat, and clavicle — to keep users safer and more comfortable. Some new, innovative harnesses have a chest strap that can slide unobstructed along the front webbing of the harness so that it may be adjusted post-fall, helping to remove pressure on the throat in the case of an inverted fall. Additionally, some designs have a back-pad system that help to relieve pressure on the clavicle. These additions to safety harnesses can help the fall victim stay safe, calm, and remain responsive during a rescue.
Additional Fall Protection Considerations
There are other risks associated with injury outside of a fall, including the risk for electrical injuries. Utility professionals face electrical risks on a daily basis, including shock and arc flash hazards from equipment during inspection, shutdown, maintenance, and testing. It’s been reported that several arc flash related fatalities occur across North America every day, resulting in 30,000 arc flash incidents per year. In the presence of such risks, OSHA has very specific requirements for employers and their utility workers.
Industry-leading designers and manufacturers of climbing safety equipment have created world-class products that are OSHA compliant and provide protection for electrical utility applications. For example, the Werner Arc Flash Fall Protection Harness was designed and manufactured specifically for users who have a higher risk of exposure to an electric arc situation, as electrical utility workers often have. The Kevlar webbing, shoulder padding, and dielectric hardware construction meets the ASTM F887 requirements for arc flash, which states that the fall protection harness must self-extinguish within five seconds of being subjected to an arc flash of 40 cal/cm2. By pairing a harness designed with dielectric hardware to daily safety procedures, utility professionals can continue to work at heights while reducing risk of electrical injuries.
Incorporating high standards for safety equipment designed to protect workers from both suspension trauma and electrical injuries can contribute to a greater rate of occupational safety for utility workers, while creating better long-term profitability for the employer. While fall protection only covers possible injuries utility workers might face, it is an easy-to-implement form of protection against a known cause of fatality for professionals performing important work, often in very tough conditions. UP
The Author: Chad D. Lingerfelt is the national safety training manager at WernerCo. In this role, he oversees all of Werner’s fall protection and ladder safety training. For the past 32 years, Chad has worked in the safety field, making sure everyone goes home safely at the end of the day.