Common Myths About Active Fall Protection

Words: Dan Kamys

Safety on the Jobsite

By John Kemp

Throughout my 22 years in the fall protection industry, what has amazed me the most is the number of common falsehoods, myths and misconceptions related to an active fall event — one where a worker experiences an unintended loss of balance and then must rely on his active fall arrest system to bring him to a controlled, predictable stop and also rely on his company’s rescue plan to get him down quickly. Let’s go through some of these myths and misconceptions. Wearing Fall Protection Is Sufficient Unfortunately, there are countless post-fall-related news articles that reference a serious or fatal injury, even though the worker was wearing his full-body harness. Often they state, “The worker was not hooked up at the time the catastrophic loss of balance occurred.” This usually means the worker had to unhook his personal fall arrest system in order to move vertically or horizontally. Anytime you disconnect your lifeline, you are at risk of a serious, if not fatal, injury. If it is not 100 percent, it’s not fall protection. Workers Are Always Conscious Before a Fall Event In just about every training I conduct on fall protection, one attendee will say, “Well, when I fall, I’ll do this or I’ll grab that.” I immediately remind them that they can never assume they are conscious just before they lose balance. Perhaps a medical issue rendered them unconscious and triggered their fall. Everyone must think of and plan for the worst-case scenario. A Conscious Worker Can React Quickly Enough to Eliminate or Minimize Injury During a fall event, a worker will fall about 20 feet before his brain can get his body to react. Even a conscious and uninjured worker will find it physically impossible to grab anything that may be in reach to (hopefully) stop the fall. Manufacturers and employers must partner together to provide fall protection equipment that is as automatic as possible. A worker should never have to rely on physical reflexes to stop a fall. Serious or Fatal Injuries Occur Only at 20 Feet or Higher The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics has shown that approximately 57 percent of fall fatalities, where the fall height was known, were from a height of 20 feet or less. Astonishingly, approximately 10 percent were from a height of only 6 feet or less. This is an important statistic to share during training. Why? Because, even though workers have the right fall arrest equipment and they were trained on it, they often feel the height at which they are working does not warrant it. The next time you train, ask, “If you were 15 feet up on a flat roof that is 20 feet wide, would you use fall protection?” The resounding answer will be no. Change just one factor: the height is now 1,000 feet in the air. This time, all answers will be yes. It’s amazing how perception influences the use of fall protection, when fall protection should be used at all times. Workers Can Last an Hour or More Suspended in a Full-Body Harness Waiting for Rescue The average person suspended in a full-body harness after a fall arrest event would say that they could last at least an hour or two waiting for rescue. Numerous tests have proven that the average person can last only about 15 minutes suspended in a full-body harness before possibly experiencing medical issues related to suspension trauma. Rescue must be without delay. For companies that adopt ANSI Fall Protection Standards, a written rescue plan must be in place for every known location where active fall protection is being used. I have yet to see a fall protection plan that includes every area where active fall protection is being used. There is a great deal of work ahead. Online Training Is Sufficient for Workers Exposed to Fall Hazards Most online fall protection courses provide only instruction, not training. They lack the hands-on, show-and-tell component that is paramount for workers to fully grasp the dos, don’ts and limitations of the equipment, systems and rescue plans that they might one day need to rely on to save their life. Stay fall-free!
John Kemp is director of technical services for Malta Dynamics. He can be reached at
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