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Best Practices

The Cost of Doing Business: Protecting Lives or Paying Fines

By Craig Firl & Steve Kosch

Fall protection was the most commonly cited OSHA violation in both 2014 and 2015. In response, OSHA is increasing fines for violations and will be conducting more frequent and stringent inspections this year. The goal is to remind organizations of the prevalence of fall protection violations, and help them reinvigorate their efforts to support a safety culture that protects workers from injury and death.

According to its online database, OSHA identified close to 600 fall protection violations in the U.S. in 2015 alone, with penalties of at least $40,000 per violation, totaling more than $54 million. Jordan Barab, OSHA deputy assistant secretary, said in a written statement that the agency’s “current penalties are clearly not strong enough to provide adequate incentives, and some employers see them as simply the ‘cost of doing business.’”

While OSHA continually pressures companies to stop viewing fines and violations as a budget line item, it is our job as fall protection specialists to help employers understand the value of protecting their most valuable assets: their workers. It is not about avoiding fines; it is about changing work site culture and investing in worker safety.

Tips on How to Incorporate Fall Protection Safety Into Your Culture
Enacting and enforcing strong fall protection practices that adhere to current regulations and keep workers safe can be an uphill battle. The key is to create an environment in which fall protection safety is implemented and followed seamlessly every day.

The following five tips on how to incorporate fall protection safety into an organization’s culture are the result of the authors’ combined understanding of safe behaviors and fall protection.

1) Reinforce Safety From the Top Down
The key to enacting and enforcing fall protection policies is to have the right attitude. The important question is how to get everyone on the crew to believe in fall protection.

One way is to reinforce positive behaviors. People respond more strongly to positive reinforcement than negative. For example, penalizing a worker for failing to comply with a mandate, often  results in resentment and detachment from the goal and culture that the workplace is trying to achieve. Rewarding a worker for following safety mandates or encouraging others to do so reinforces good behaviors.

2) Eliminate Unsafe Behavior at Height
Employees can find it difficult to follow certain safety rules and procedures if they are rewarded for behaviors that save time or achieve extra production while cutting safety corners. Whenever employees cut corners or experience no incidents when not following at-height safety best practices, it becomes more difficult to persuade them to adhere to safety procedures. This issue can become even more prevalent when site managers turn a blind eye to dangerous practices, or actively encourage employees to take shortcuts for the sake of productivity.

Such practices have negative effects that are not always immediately apparent. Employees can learn that unsafe behavior pays. These practices also waste company resources, as the very behaviors that a company is spending time, money and effort to eradicate are actually being reinforced. Third, by condoning unsafe behavior, site managers transmit conflicting messages that undermine employee confidence in management’s overall commitment to safety.

A good example is at-height workers who do not wear fall protection equipment because it is cumbersome or hinders job performance. While a manager may understand and relate to the workers’ argument against safety equipment that negatively impacts productivity, a better solution exists. Instead of risking a potentially deadly fall, the better course is to invest in PPE that maximizes productivity and comfort. This helps to ensure that workers are safe and effective. And it shows that the company is willing to support employees with solutions that improve their working environment.

One way to achieve this is to host regular on-site training exercises or toolbox talks to adequately demonstrate potential dangers for at-height workers, and to present simple, everyday solutions for preventing them. It is a time to remind workers of the risks they are taking, as well as the potential for harmful and life-threatening incidents.

3) Encourage Workers to Lead by Example & Reinforce Fall Protection Safety  
Peer pressure can be just as prevalent on the job site as it is on the school playground. Some people may not use fall protection equipment or follow a safety procedure at work because they fear their coworkers’ disapproval. But if an entire crew adopts the norm that thinking and behaving safely is best for all concerned, the team will begin to value and enforce a safe working environment.

Find a champion on the crew to help reinforce fall protection policies and programs. A respected coworker will often be more effective in driving home good fall protection policies than an office-bound safety manager.

By encouraging a culture that embraces and reinforces safe behavior through positive peer pressure, companies can more easily discourage unsafe practices.

4) Improve Safety Behavior Through Engineered Solutions & Secondary Safety Tools
Eliminate hazards by engineering them out or introducing tools or procedures that make fall protection second nature. A good first step is to provide the right tools and resources where they are needed. Make safety accessible and hassle free. Using equipment such as guardrails or self-rescue devices can be a great way to provide a secondary layer of protection for workers.

5) Reinforce Fall Protection Through Awareness & Training
Comments in incident reports often indicate that many incidents could have been avoided with the proper training and equipment. A company can purchase the right tools and load them on the truck, but if workers are not equipped with the knowledge of why and how to use them, incidents will continue to occur.

This is why OSHA and several partners hold a national stand-down event each May to raise awareness of preventing fall hazards in construction, as fatalities caused by falls from height continue to be a leading cause of death among construction workers. The goal of OSHA’s third annual stand-down, May 2-6, 2016, is to reach 5 million workers—more than half of the construction workers in the U.S.—and educate them about fall hazards and the importance of fall prevention.

Creating a Successful Safety Culture
Whether OSHA’s anticipated increase in its fines will encourage more companies to adopt safer practices remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: companies have the ability to change their safety culture.

Training teams and fall protection specialists understand behavioral, cultural and even the financial barriers that companies face when new fall protection regulations are enacted. With the new OSHA fines and tougher inspections in 2016, it is hoped that the decision between budgeting for incidents or investing in safety is an easier one to make.

Fall Prevention Best Practices
Every company should review this checklist to enhance its safety culture.
1) A fall protection plan is always required when an employee is working at height.
2) Workers affected by the fall protection plan must be trained in all its elements, and the plan must be made available to them.
3) All employees should participate in a comprehensive training program. This includes product training and general fall protection training.
4) Inspect fall protection gear on a regular basis.
5) Stay current with the latest applicable OSHA, ANSI and CSA Group standards.
6) Make sure company resources (e.g., tools, safety plans) match the job. Safety should never be a hindrance to the task at hand.
7) Enlist help to make sure you get it right. Safety trainers know how to launch a safety program and get everyone on board.
8) Get involved in events such as OSHA’s National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction, May 2-6, 2016, to get the latest training and safety tips. According to OSHA, the 2015 stand-down reached 2.5 million workers. This year’s goal is to reach 5 million workers—more than half of the construction workers in the U.S. Find out how to become involved in the stand-down at

Craig Firl is North American technical director at Capital Safety. He has been with the company for more than 30 years, with duties ranging from engineer systems business manager to marketing director and project manager.

Steve Kosch is a fall protection technical service professional with 3M, where he has been employed for more than 19 years. Prior to 3M, he was an EHS specialist for Flint Hills Resources.


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