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January 22, 2012 | By Jackie Roembke
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How to Proactively Address Fall Hazards

Investment in quality safety equipment protects employees, prevents OSHA citations

Protecting workers from fall hazards has always been high on Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) priority list; however, the organization has recently honed in on agriculture’s enforcement — or lack of enforcement — of fall protection-related standards and regulations. Though OSHA’s “four-foot rule,” or general industry standard 29 CFR 1910, requires employees be tied-off or restrained from falling anytime they are four feet off the ground. Agriculture had been exempt under the 1996 Miles Memo, until now.

The internal memo sent by John Miles, OSHA director of compliance programs, to his fellow inspectors regarding OSHA’s enforcement policy. It states that "falls from rolling stock would not be cited under fall protection standard because it was not appropriate to cite exposure to fall hazards from tops of rolling stock unless the stock was inside of or contiguous to a structure where fall protection is feasible."

The memo had been widely accepted as the ruling guideline for the grain processing and handling industries; however, in 2010, OSHA deemed the 1996 memo outdated. OSHA submitted specific questions to industry stakeholders regarding the application and development of fall protection standards for rolling stock.

In response to this inquiry, the National Grain & Feed Association submitted its comments to OSHA, (what did NGFA have to say?), but that's where the discussion ended.

NGFA's director of safety and regulatory affairs, Jess McCluer, likens the vague directive to the complications presented by OSHA’s sweep auger letter of interpretation. Not only has OSHA not clearly stated its expectations, interpretation of the guideline is going to vary with each office, region and inspector.

The question now becomes what constitutes a violation, and what level of rolling stock fall protection is necessary from a contiguous structure?

“It’s causing some confusion within the industry on what's applicable,” says McCluer. “What is the limit on what you can and can't do? Is OSHA saying that you may need fall protection if you are, say, 20 cars away from the facility? We're not sure."

Notable citations

On Oct. 28, 2011, OSHA cited Cooperative Producers Inc., a grain elevator facility in Franklin, Neb., with a proposed $70,000 penalty after citing a willful violation where the employer did not furnish a place of employment which was free of recognized hazards… in that employees were exposed to the hazards of falls when walking/working on the top of railroad cars, or rolling stock.”

According to the OSHA press release, Charles E. Adkins, OSHA's regional administrator in Kansas City, MO, says: "Cooperative Producers failed to provide its employees with a safe and healthful environment. It is imperative that all employers take the necessary steps to eliminate hazards from the workplace."

Another notable citation involves the Federal Grain Inspection Services (FGIS), who cited in October 2011 for lack of fall protection based on an informal employee interview at a Corpus Christi sub-office. The outcome of this action against a government agency may change the policy, impacting the entire industry. {Jess, do you want me to cite the source?}

McCluer explains: “If OSHA issues a citation, and say it is part of the company’s abatement that they agree to do x, y, and z — well, if OSHA is also in the process of potentially developing a new rule regarding rolling stock fall protection, whatever ever they put in as part of that abatement may not comply with the new standard.”

What safeguards or updates can a business proactively put in place to protect itself before the OSHA inspector comes knocking?

“There are a lot of variables involved here,” McCluer says. “It’s not a clear cut issue on what is exactly allowed or not allowed, but they should be OK as long as that they have a sound, safety and health management program.”

McCluer advises facilities thorough recordkeeping of training and equipment purchases; the ability to demonstrate that safety processes and procedures are in place; and how the company reduces the likelihood of fall arrest.

Beyond rolling stock

Trucks, tankers and feed trailers pose their own unique set of safety challenge.

What some grain elevators may fail to realize or choose to ignore is that they responsible for the safety of anyone on their property. In the grain industry, enforcing fall protection standards is difficult given the volume of producer traffic passing through a facility.

“The way OSHA looks at it if a person is above 4 feet, they must be tied off to fall protection,” says Dale Pedersen, senior field technician, Fall Protection Systems. “Elevators deal with very independent people, but they still are liable for whatever happens to those people — doesn’t matter who they are. If a farmer climbs on his truck and falls off, it’s on you.” 

Pedersen suggests elevators put signs up everywhere telling people what they can and cannot do while onsite. Signs will not protect a business from liability suits, but they do communicate the facilities rules. Similar to when no smoking signs went up to prevent explosions around dump pits, signage, like those supplied by Clarion Safety Systems (pg. XX), allow a business to approach a customer who may be acting recklessly in a non-confrontational way.

“What it comes down to is that you need to protect the company’s bottom line,” Pederson says. “If someone is breaking your rules, you ask them to obey the rules or leave.”

Protecting your business and your employees

“The cost of the fall protection was much less than a violation,” Pedersen notes.

It’s important for elevators to have procedures in place and know what to do when an inspector shows up. You want to guide OSHA, not open the door to allow them the opportunity to find things.

Checklist of the things you should have in place before an inspection:

1) Observe your employees and your visitors. 

Are they climbing on top of their trucks on your property?  Are they climbing on top of a railcar? If the answer is yes, then what do you have in place to protect them, to keep them from falling and, secondly, what do you need to do to be in compliance.

2) Don’t be afraid to ask for advice

Call your regional OSHA office, and if you’re nervous about that, use a private phone line or block the call.

“Companies have finally realized that any money they spend on safety is an investment and it's not an expense,” Pedersen says.

Naturally, inviting a fall protection equipment supplier to evaluate the hazards at your facility is an alternate was to gain insight into where improvements can be made.

3) Review the available solutions

Find answers to these questions: What is the most user-friendly?  What is going to be the most cost effective over the long term? Trolley roller rail systems are a popular solution. Also, horizontal lifeline or cable systems are traditional option. Also, determine the limited number of people you can put on the system and consider the potential for somebody to get injured if a person falls on the system. Note: A guard rail system is fall prevention, it's not fall protection. 

“People try to claim it's that way, but technically it's not,” Pedersen says. 

4) Training: Provide an annual refresher to employees

Based off the manufacturer's recommendation, require annual training and inspection of the systems. The small time investment will allow you to document that training was provided should OSHA request documentation in the future.

Jeff Barnum, sales director with Flexible Lifeline Systems, notes the new ANSI Standard, Z359, assists in safety training of employees based on more clearly defined set of training levels and requirements. 

“You have the authorized user, who would be the user of the system with a certain level of training required, and then there is the competent person, a position that is a step up from the authorized user,” he explains. “Now we have more defined roles or training requirements with the latest ANSI standards.”

5) Stay informed

Be proactive and seek out the information about changing regulations. Talk to suppliers, trade associations, tune into webinars — and share what you learn.

6) Inform your insurance company of your investment

When you install any safety equipment, call your liability risk carrier and have their representative come out and show them what you've done to eliminate risk. 

“We find is typically places see a 10% reduction on their liability coverage,” Pedersen says. 

Things to consider

Fall protection equipment manufacturers have come a long way in providing better, more cost-effective systems.

“The technology addressing concerns on rescue, training, system capabilities has come a long way,” Barnum says. “If companies have looked at fall protection in the past and thought it didn’t provide a positive impact on productivity or was cost prohibitive, they really should take a look again and consider some of the newer developments that have come out.”

The highest priority, Barnum explains, is for a facility to eliminate the hazard.  Secondly, he suggests companies provide some type of passive fall restraint which would not require the user to tie off. 

“The tie off system should be a last resort in any fall protection scenario,” he says. “We certainly look to trying to provide passive solutions or engineering off the hazard. All fall arrest situation is dangerous in itself; you don’t want to rely on the tie-off system as your first line of defense, it should be your back-up, a last resort.”

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