The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall

On April 22, 1998, a 57-year-old electrical mechanic died after falling through an unguarded floor opening on the fourth floor of a building. The victim was rewinding electrical cable, holding onto the end of the cable and walking backward from the spool, pulling the cable straight so it would rewind evenly. He fell 45 feet to a concrete floor, and the cable's spool was pulled down on top of him.


On April 22, 1998, a 57-year-old electrical mechanic died after falling through an unguarded floor opening on the fourth floor of a building. The victim was rewinding electrical cable, holding onto the end of the cable and walking backward from the spool, pulling the cable straight so it would rewind evenly. He fell 45 feet to a concrete floor, and the cable's spool was pulled down on top of him.

On Feb. 17, 1998, a 51-year-old electrician died after falling approximately 6 feet from an aluminum extension ladder to the concrete floor of a fertilizer plant. The victim had been working on a switch box attached to a steel post near the rear exit of the plant.

On Oct. 9, 1996, a 34-year-old electrician's apprentice died after falling 25 feet from an extension ladder. The victim was working on an electrical junction box attached to a ceiling truss of a commercial building, preparing to move an exit sign with emergency lighting attached.

On Nov. 16, 1993, a 21-year-old electrician apprentice died after falling 55 feet from a hospital roof, on which he and a journeyman electrician were installing conduit and wiring for a surveillance camera.

Each day, U.S. workers suffer injury, disability, and death from workplace incidents. On average, nearly 16 workers die each day from traumatic injuries, according to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). For electricians, most fatal work-related accidents involve electrocution caused by contact with energized parts through wiring, transformers, and circuit breakers. From established OSHA standards to the recent introduction of the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) 70E standard, safety training for electrical workers strongly emphasizes the danger of working on live circuits and the importance of lockout/tagout strategies. But, as the above examples illustrate, electrical safety is only one key component of a successful health and safety program.

In 2005, there were 767 construction fatalities caused by falls, totaling more than one-third of work-related fatalities for private construction, a 7% decrease from the record high in 2004. Lower numbers of fatal falls from roofs, ladders, stairs or steps, and non-moving vehicles led to the overall decline, but even today many workers remain at high risk of injury and death from falls. NIOSH reports that the second most common cause of fatal injury for electrical workers involve falls, including falls from ladders, some of which may have been initiated by contact with an electrical circuit.

Between 2003 and 2005, 181 electricians died on the job: 134 in construction, 18 in service, and 16 in manufacturing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The majority of the fatalities involved electrocution, but falls came in a close second. It only takes a moment for a fall to occur, and falling only a few feet can result in serious injury or death. Therefore, it's imperative that electrical contracting firms plan, implement, and maintain a fall prevention program.

Get with the program

Construction work-related falls come with a high price to both employee and employer. The average occupational death from a fall costs $1 million, says a study by risk-management consulting firm Zurich Services Corp., Schaumberg, Ill. After you factor in the lawsuits and fines, as well as loss of work and business opportunities — not to mention reputation — many employers are left with a hefty bill. Therefore, company-wide safety mandates and training that cover fall protection may not only save lives, but also save money.

Officially, OSHA is responsible for maintaining federal fall protection guidelines. According to the organization, identifying fall hazards and deciding how best to protect workers is the first step in reducing or eliminating fall hazards. The agency emphasizes prevention first, only endorsing conventional fall protection systems — guardrail, safety net, fall arrest systems, positioning systems, and travel-restraint systems — under very specific work conditions, for fear that prolonged suspension after a fall could cause orthostatic intolerance and venous pooling, which could result in serious or fatal injury as the brain, kidneys, and other organs are deprived of oxygen. Therefore, OSHA's 2004 bulletin encourages employers to implement a prompt rescue plan alongside their fall protection plan. However, to many safety experts, OSHA's standards act more like a general guildeline than a how-to manual.

The big news in fall protection standards is the recent approval of the revised standards in ANSI Z359, “Fall Arrest Code,” which will be published by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Des Plaines, Ill., and take effect October 12. The revised sections include: those relating to definitions; minimum requirements for comprehensive managed fall protection program, work positioning and travel restraint; and safety requirements for assisted rescue and self-rescue systems, subsystems, and components. Safety experts agree that, although compliance is voluntary, the revised fall protection standards will offer more specific guidance on planning and implementing a fall protection program, as well as creating a post-fall rescue plan. The Z359 Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) is also working on a comprehensive fall protection code that will include 12 additional standards for release sometime in 2008.

As for programs specific to electrical contractors, in 2002, the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), Alexandria, Va., formed an official alliance with OSHA to focus on the prevention of falls, among other safety concerns. Since then, the organization has highlighted fall prevention information on its Web site, in its bimonthly trade journal, and in its newsletters distributed to members and industry partners. In 2003, IEC actively sought to reduce fatal falls in the industry by more than 23% by providing its members information on safe ladder practices (available as a downloadable PDF at For more tips, see Ladder Safety on page C14.

In addition, through a Construction Roundtable of OSHA's Alliance program, IEC developed a strategy to help employers plan, implement, and maintain fall prevention programs (see Steps for a Fall Protection Program).

Lifts and operates

Despite the available information — or even because of — adding fall protection into your company's safety program can be confusing. Industry experts agree that some of the standards are vague or seem contradictory, especially those involving personal fall protection systems. Both OSHA and ANSI have issued standards for fall protection, and some states, such as Washington — where a harness and lanyard have been required on scissor lifts since January 1 — and independent organizations — Aerial Work Platform Training (AWPT), Rouzerville, Pa., proponents of full body harnesses on boom lifts — have drafted their own rules and basic guidance documents.

For specific aerial lift safety, David K. Merrifield, C.S.P., Merrifield Safety Consulting, St. Joseph, Mo., recommends following ANSI standards. Specifically, Merrifield points to ANSI/SIA A92.6-2006, “Self-Propelled Elevating Work Platforms;” ANSI/SIA A92.5-2006, “American National Standard Boom-Supported Elevating Work Platforms;” and ANSI/SIA A92.2-2001, “American National Standard Vehicle-Mounted Elevating and Rotating Aerial Devices.”

“OSHA talks about fall protection, but if you just looked at its standards you would think that you didn't need fall protection on these other lifts because they have guardrails,” Merrifield says. “ANSI's a lot more detailed.”

According to OSHA's standards, employers and workers are given the choice among guardrail, personal fall protection, or a safety net. Merrifield doesn't think this is enough protection. “You need personal fall protection because the work platform is on the end of a big, long boom, and if you drive off into a hole or hit a curb, the tractor part of it rotates around its axis, and it will pitch you out of the basket,” he says. “It's a very serious danger.”

In Merrifield's experience, fatalities caused by falls from boom-type vehicles are typically the result of being ejected from the basket. “If they'd been wearing fall protection, they might've been hurt, but they wouldn't have fallen to the ground,” he says. “If they conform with the ANSI standards, they're going to be pretty safe. There can still be accidents, but at least the injuries would be lessened.”

However, when using A92.6-type machinery, the scissor lifts that move straight up and down (no catapulting motion), there is no requirement for fall protection from either OSHA or ANSI. In this situation, employers and electricians may want to follow the equipment manufacturers' recommendations.

“They can wear personal fall protection if their employers have determined they need to on that job,” Merrifield says. “There's nothing that prohibits them from doing that, but they must also make sure the guardrail system is in place, especially the entrance gates and chains, if there are chains.”

With scissor lifts, there is more danger in leaving the gate open than in being thrown off the work platform. “Probably the most falls in my experience — on those kinds of machines — is people taping or wiring the gate open or somehow defeating the entry gate system and simply walking off of the platform.”

One million hours

At the very least, workers from electrical contractor PayneCrest, St. Louis, follow OSHA and ANSI standards for fall protection, and it seems to be working. On April 4, the company closed out the day with an unprecedented 1 million consecutive hours of work without a recordable injury. David L. Payne, president, credits his company's safety record to an integrated safety program that includes training, equipment, and stringent requirements.

All of PayneCrest's project managers and field supervision personnel complete OSHA 30-hour training, and all of its electricians complete the 10-hour OSHA construction training, which includes the walking and working surfaces portion that covers ladders and other work platforms. As for fall protection equipment, PayneCrest requires fall protection systems for any height over 6 feet, and only veers from the course under equipment manufacturer specifications. “We tie off in rigs and lifts when the manufacturer requires it,” Payne says. “But there are some that don't want ties.”

PayneCrest provides all fall protection equipment for its electricians, including double lanyards, which are cleaned and inspected regularly. “The foremen inspect them as soon as they get to the job site,” Payne says. “We also send them out to a private testing company for inspection. Periodically, they're dated so that we can make sure they're all in good shape.”

The bulk of PayneCrest's workload is in industrial or commercial work. Those types of projects require extra attention to safety, says Payne. Currently, 250 PayneCrest electricians are working at an automotive plant doing shutdown work. Payne estimates that the company has more than 50 aerial lifts on the job site. “In an industrial setting, very fast paced, that's when it's really important to have these safety programs in place because people start getting tired,” Payne says. “The trades are all packed in the same area, and there's a lot of pressure to get this thing done.”

In this situation, in accordance to the plant's own safety regulations, PayneCrest assigned an additional safety person to watch the people in the lifts. “When people are walking underneath them, they're warned there's somebody up in the air,” Payne says. “This is specific to the rules of the plant that we're working in. Quite frankly, normally if there were people working in the area, we would warn them to tell people when they're coming by, but that extra person is specific to this plant.”

Payne opines that perhaps if his firm worked on smaller projects, its safety record wouldn't be what it is now. “When we do smaller commercial work, our guys are wearing work boots, hardhats, and safety glasses, abiding by our work rules, but none of the other trades are,” Payne says. “With the bigger work, the more industrial work, and the bigger commercial work, the general contractors and owners require a much higher level of safety, so that's become our culture.”

Sidebar: Ladder Safety

Your employees should already know never to use wood or metal ladders for electrical work, but do they also know that ANSI recommends setting ladders at a 75.5° angle? The organization also emphasizes the following points when working on ladders:

  • Erect the ladder on a solid, level surface and install a manufacturer-approved “leveler” if using on uneven surfaces. Do not put on top of boxes, barrels, or other unstable objects.

  • Secure base when raising an extension ladder and never set up when extended.

  • Support the ladder at the top on both side rails — never on a rung.

  • Install a single-point support attachment when both rails cannot support the ladder, such as against columns, poles, or inside and outside corners.

  • Check ladder angle.

  • Protect the base from traffic. If a ladder must be in front of a door, make sure the door is locked or guarded.

  • Tie off and extend the ladder 36 to 42 inches above the dismount level when stepping off at a higher level.

  • Secure the ladder against displacement by tying it at the top, bottom, or both, depending on the conditions. Make sure someone “foots” the bottom when tying off the top.

  • Fully open stepladders and lock the spreader. All feet should contact a level supporting structure.

  • Use safe climbing techniques: Don't rush. Face the ladder and use both hands while climbing up or down. Apply the three-point rule by keeping at least both feet and one hand or both hands and one foot on the ladder at all times. Stay off the top two rungs of a straight or extension ladder and the top step and cap of a stepladder.

Sidebar: Steps for a Fall Protection Program

The IEC and OSHA Alliance Roundtable identified these steps toward developing, implementing, and maintaining a fall protection program for electrical contractors.

  • Develop a written fall prevention plan.

  • Identify potential fall hazards prior to each project and during daily walk-arounds. Pay attention to hazards associated with routine and non-routine tasks.

  • Eliminate the need for fall protection where possible by rescheduling, isolating, or changing the task.

  • Ensure that fall protection equipment is appropriate for the task, in good condition, and used properly.

  • Conduct general fall prevention training on a regular basis.

  • Train workers on the specific fall hazards identified and on the required personal protective equipment.

  • Conduct regular inspections of fall protection equipment in accordance with manufacturers' recommendations and OSHA requirements.

  • Emphasize fall hazards unique to the site, such as open floor holes or shafts, riser penetrations, and skylights.

  • Team up with other construction employers and employees to identify best practices and share fall prevention solutions.

  • Get more information from OSHA. Visit its Web site at or call (800) 321-OSHA.

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