Recently I was made aware of a fatality where the subject of fall protection had been discussed before and during the work. Unfortunately, this person died as a direct result of not following a well-established fall protection program.
Like most companies throughout the country, this company had developed a written fall protection program, trained their employees in the program, and made their contractors aware of the program. They even performed surveillance to ensure both the direct-hire employees as well as the contractors were, in fact, following the program.
What Went Wrong?
Two hours before the fall that subsequently killed a worker, the facility Safety Director told the victim to come down from the scaffolding and don the necessary fall protection.
“I have been painting tanks for over twenty-five years. And I don’t like to wear that useless harness. It just gets in the way,” replied the contractor.
“Regardless, if you want to work on this site, you will have fall protection: use of fall protection is not optional,” the Safety Director told him. “This is the third time I have had to mention this to you. How many times must I remind you?”
“Very well, I don’t like it, but I guess if that is what I have to do I will do it.”
An hour later the contractor was dead. He had fallen seventeen feet and landed headfirst onto concrete paving. He had suffered a broken neck. His abandoned fall-protection gear was later found on the scaffolding.
Written Programs Only Go So Far
Could this accident have been prevented? Probably so. It was obvious from my discussion with the Safety Director that the contractor did not view the penalty for non-compliance to work rules as a genuine threat to himself or his parent company. The victim simply felt that he would do things ‘his’ way regardless with little or no recourse.
How do you place a high price tag for non-compliance to work rules?
It must start with the safety culture of the company. Everyone in the company should be made aware of certain basic work rules and given the authority to enforce these rules.
Like the posters say, “Safety is everyone’s business.” The culture must be established in the company so that everyone knows they have a role. A clerk in the mailroom can be trained to identify something as obvious as misuse of fall protection. In the fatality mentioned here, several witnesses observed the unsafe working condition but failed to do anything about it.
Top-down training on basic safety issues can go a long way for accident prevention. To be effective, increased surveillance by employees knowledgeable of the company rules and regulations is required.
Consider modifying your contractor program to include a statement that any authorized employee conducting surveillance has the authority to issue a “stop-work order” when employees are discovered working in an unsafe manner. You may even consider adding a statement to indicate that downtime for safety violations will not be paid by the company.
Two Warnings – That’s It!
The surveillance to ensure compliance with safe work practices should be documented. A form or a tag should be considered to document the incidence of non-compliance. More importantly, consider a program whereby contractors are informed that there are only two warnings for an individual violation of a work rule. If a third violation is discovered, the contract employee should be asked to leave the job site. A time limit of perhaps six months or greater before the contract employee will be allowed to work on the site again should also be considered as a written rule within your contractor program.
If contractors are made aware before awarding the contract, that a “three strikes” rule is in effect, and that an unsafe employee can drastically interrupt the flow of revenue to the contracting firm, the contractor representative will be more motivated to ensure that unsafe work habits will not be tolerated. Contractor programs written that include the above will typically raise the awareness level of everyone on the project.
Written programs are only as effective as the level of surveillance. To ensure any safety and health program is effective, visits to work areas should be frequent so that the contractors understand they are being watched. It is not unusual to have eight or nine visits to the work area in an eight-hour day.
Perhaps in the incident mentioned above, the fault lies not only in the worker that perished but also in management’s failure to give the witnesses the authority to stop the work.