If I Fell

Working at height safely

by Phil La Duke

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Imagine travelling 66 metres per second straight down, no parachute, no harness, and nothing – if you’re lucky – between you and the ground. Time seems to move in slow motion as you hurl at what is literally break neck speed toward certain death. What do you think about in those brief last moments before you die a gruesome death? No one will ever know, but chances are strong that you aren’t wondering if you left the oven on when you left the house that morning. People will say you died instantly and you didn’t feel a thing.

I have fallen from heights before and while I never achieved terminal velocity, I can tell you that in that brief instant I thought plenty. I remember distinctly thinking about the ill-fated decisions I made that led me to tumble from a ladder at a height of about three metres. I was retrieving salvaged wood from the loft in my brother’s barn. I felt the rickety ladder go from static to wobbling. I felt that sick feeling you get right before something horrible is about to happen and then it gave way.

I didn’t panic. I positioned myself on the ladder and rode it to the ground. I distinctly remember the dull thud my body made when I hit the manure (or worse) covered floor. There was a moment when I felt nothing – not pain, not pressure – nothing. Then the pain shot through me like a lightning bolt made of ice. I didn’t know if I was injured. The pain was suddenly gone. I wondered if this is what dying felt like (I’ve always been prone to a bit of melodrama). My brother looked at me horror stricken and asked, “are you alright?” in an alarmed voice that was one of those pseudo shouts people involuntarily make when they genuinely fear that things are pretty damned far from “alright”.

I had dressed for the job wearing a heavy wool coat that provided ample cushion. I struggled my fat frame up off the floor like an obese sea turtle trying to right itself after a sadistic wave heaved up from the ocean upside down onto the sand on the beach. I brushed myself off and finished loading the wood into my car.

“I felt that sick feeling you get right before something horrible is about to happen and then it gave way”

I took some aspirin and a couple of pints (two of the three answers to all of life’s problems, the third being duct tape.) I honestly felt a little sore, but nothing worth going to the doctor about. Or so I thought. That night I awoke from a sound sleep in agonising pain. My back hurt so badly that I could barely move. My ribs ached with every breath. Resting my head on the pillow sent me howling in excruciating pain. It was so bad I went to see my doctor. He examined me and told me that I had cracked a rib or two, strained a muscle in my lower back, and pulled a tendon in my neck. He said there wasn’t much he could do for me medically, as he put it, “the only cure is time, and you are going to hurt like hell for a couple of weeks.” He asked how I did it, and not wanting to look foolish I told him it was a bullfighting injury. Screw him, if he can’t cure me he doesn’t need to know how I did it.

I know there are a fair amount of smug safety personnel reading this and tsk-tsking their tongues at my stupidity, well. I know that most deaths resulting from falls from heights happen at less than three metres. I know that I should have tied off. I know I should have maintained three points of contact at all times while on the ladder, I know I should have inspected both the ladder to ensure it was in good condition and capable of supporting me, and I know I should have made doubly sure that the ladder was on a level and stable surface. Thank you. Congratulations on being right and perfect. But this wasn’t some magical kingdom where I could just wave my hands and have everything the way it should have
been. Like many of you, I live in the real world, and the real world is messy, imperfect, and just wrong.

Let’s do a quick incident investigation here. I was aware of all the things I needed to do to keep me safe and yet I did none of them; why?

I didn’t bring my own ladder because I assumed the wood was where my brother stores everything in his barn, in stacks along the wall. I didn’t have a truck, I had a midsize car and travelling 25 kilos with a ladder stuck in the boot just in case I needed it was not something I was prepared to do. Besides, I knew my brother had a couple of ladders if I needed one.

I wasn’t at work, but even if this was some part of my job, I don’t have a harness. One dimwit suggested that I could have tied off with a rope, but that would have done more harm than good. I didn’t maintain three points of contact while on the ladder because one cannot climb a ladder and use one’s hands while maintaining three points of contact. I didn’t inspect the ladder because my brother used it often and is taller and at least as…prosperous, as I am. Finally, I didn’t ensure that the ladder was on a stable and level surface, but that doesn’t matter because that didn’t factor into the incident. The proximate cause was that I was reaching for wood and instead of repositioning the ladder I leaned a bit too far. The centre of gravity of me on the ladder shifted and cause the ladder to tip over and gravity caused me to fall.

“let’s do a quick incident investigation here. I was aware of all the things I needed to do to keep me safe and yet I did none of them; why?”

There was a chain of poor decision making on my part and it hurt me badly enough not to do it again, but not so badly that it caused me anything but a minor inconvenience and a lot of pain.

So I understand, or think I understand, what the last thoughts of someone who dies from a fall.

At least I wasn’t using that “I was only going to be up there for a minute” excuse, but humans are predisposed toward expediency. It doesn’t make sense to tie off or take extraordinary precautions to protect myself from a fall when I am only going to be at risk for a moment.

There I said it. I am guilty of safety heresy and I don’t even know on how many counts. The safety establishment will be well chuffed when they read this. The point here is, I get it. I know all the arguments against tying off, from “I’m encumbered and therefore more at risk than if I just climbed the rafters like a rabid howler monkey” to “I am only at risk for a minute.” Good arguments against taking precautions that are your best bet of not making a mistake or poor decision will kill you.

This is all well and good, except of course that you most likely will die a gruesome and agonising death. You see, while a fall from height isn’t a leading cause of death, it is – along with death resulting from the failure to control hazardous energy – consistently among the most fatal injuries. If you are afraid of heights some wise guy will inevitably say, “I’m not afraid of falling… it’s that sudden stop that will kill you.” Great joke guys. It was really funny the first 9,386 times I heard it.

“while a fall from height isn’t a leading cause of death, it is consistently among the most fatal injuries”

While there are ostensibly good reasons for not taking proper precautions while working at height I’m still going to provide you with some basic common sense, and easy to implement measures that can protect you while working at height.

Find a better way

The easiest and most effective way to protect yourself from heights is to find another way of getting the work done with minimal risk. I was once working as a production safety consultant on a major motion picture. The crew was installing fake windows. I’ve been in many a film set and have found that in general the crew take great pains to work safely, but occasionally they lose site of the big picture. In this case I watched as they raised the large heavy metal window toward its intended location installation point, while six workers leaned out the decaying building slot doing precisely what I had done when I fell from a ladder – but at a much greater height. But all these were workers that I knew and liked and while it was my job, even if it weren’t I didn’t want to see them harmed. Protocol dictated that I speak with the foreman so I did. I asked him if the job could be done with a man lift instead of people leaning out. He got very angry. I really didn’t know why it was. Then he pointed to six unused man lifts that were adjacent to the work being done. I said “I’m sorry if I said something to upset you” to which he replied “do you know how much it cost me to rent one of those each day?” I neither knew nor cared so I shrugged noncommittally. He went on to say, “I’ve got a small fortune sitting there while I’m putting lives at risk.” I don’t tell you this to show how smart I am (although I think it does so nicely) rather to illustrate that sometimes we think a job is going to be so easy that will all it will only take a second and it doesn’t turn out that way. In many cases, we can greatly reduce the risk of a fall from height simply by using better tools. Whenever we’re working, distraction and a loss of situational awareness can be deadly.

It’s not just about you

No matter how many barriers you put up, no matter how many signs you put up warning people that you’re working above them, some idiot will invariably ignore your warnings. Therefore, it’s important that you secure all your tools, materials, and equipment. Also, keep anything that could cause harm if it fell off the edge picked up and put away.

Know where the edge is

When working at heights, whether it be on the job or at work, the simple
most practical way to protect yourself from a fall is to clearly identify the “danger zone” The danger zone is the area where you are too close to the edge and are at risk of falling over the side. Different jurisdictions have different requirements for the distance from the side that the danger zone markings must be made but in general it’s around 32 metres from the side; If you enter the danger zone you must tie off and be wearing an approved harness.

In some cases you may not have a harness, but there are other measures that you can take to protect yourself, for example, scaffolding or safety netting around the fall area. If you’re working in high steel and fall off a building there is typically wooden temporary flooring and every other floor. Personally I wouldn’t want to fall even that far without protection, but it’s better than falling 20 stories to the ground. That’s more of a stopgap than a single solution.

“in many cases, we can greatly reduce the risk of a fall from height simply by using better tools”

Fall protection harness

It’s important that you have your own harness and that it fits properly. A fall protection harness is like wearing trousers to work: both need to be fitted to your body. You do, I presume, wear your own trousers to work. Why? Whatever your reason it can’t be as good as it “because a proper fit will save your life.” This is a real problem (wearing someone else’s harness not wearing someone else’s trousers) because an ill-fitting harness can either fail to arrest your fall because you slipped out of one that is too large, or cause internal damage because it is too small. Get your own and get one that fits.

I have seen roofers use a rope tied around their waists instead of a proper harness. I am not going to tell you how to live or end your life, but I am going to tell you that harnesses are designed not only to stop your fall but to stop your fall gradually. Remember your internal organs are travelling at the speed of your fall and if you stop your fall abruptly your external body may stop but your internal organs will continue travelling to the nearest point of egress faster than hotel guests fleeing a fire. Think about your body and your internal organs headed to the nearest and easiest point of egress. I’m just saying there are more dignified ways of dying.

Even so, a harness is not enough. You also need to look below you and clear your fall path of any obstacles.

Too many people die because they are battered and banged to bits because they tied off above objects that will break their fall and likely kill or gravely injure them. Before you climb to the height and tie off calculate your fall path and either clear it or tie off in a different location.

Tie off points

Finding an appropriate tie off point can be difficult. On too many occasions the safety guy will insist that you tie off without giving you good advice as to how and where you should tie off from. You have to tie off to something that is capable of supporting your weight, the weight of your tools, your clothes, and that is stable enough to withstand the sudden jolt of your fall.

In some cases I will grant you that there is simply no safe place to tie off. In those cases, you need to drive anchor points or anchor a tie off cable. Of course you can also stay at least 35 metres from the edge.

Make sure you have the appropriate harness

I have worked in facilities where the lanyard on the harness is twice as again the length as the height at which people work. Instead of grousing about it, say something and keep saying things until this is remedied.

Conclusion

The most frustrating thing about fatalities resulting from a fall from height is that they are almost universally preventable. In the many cases that I have seen survivors and or witnesses always defend the poor work practices of someone who falls by saying “He was only going to be up there for a second”.

Unfortunately, it takes less time than that to fall to your death. Be careful out there, the life you save may be mine.

Author Details

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Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke is an internationally noted thought leader on worker safety, culture change, and organisational development. He is the author of the weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com, and is a frequent guest blogger to www.monsterTHINKING.com, www.monsterWORKING.com, and www.safetyrisk.au.com. La Duke has been named one of the 101 most influential people in safety globally, is an editorial advisor and contributor to numerous prestigious publications. In addition to his writing credits, La Duke is a highly sought after speaker and consultant on safety and organisational change topics. Author of I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business.

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