Fall protection may be mandated and a priority today, but before the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the history of fall protection in the US was quite different. Before OSHA, fall protection, and the protection of employee health in general, was largely unregulated.
Employers were not responsible for their employees’ health or injuries encountered on the job. Now, fall protection has come a long way.
What is OSHA?
A significant milestone in the history of fall protection was the foundation of OSHA or Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971. The department was formed as a result of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act. Before this, employees would often forego protection equipment as it was deemed too restrictive or uncomfortable.
With OSHA, there was a regulation of safety procedures, laws, and guidelines. Attitude towards workplace safety changed as education about workplace safety increased. OSHA began conducting unannounced workplace inspections while increasing litigation costs regarding workplace safety, ensuring that fall protection became a top priority for employers.
Why Have Fall Protection Equipment Changed?
Due to strict regulations maintained by OSHA, fall protection equipment have evolved quite a bit. When you look at the history of fall protection equipment, you will see how much they have changed. Now, passive and active fall protection equipment is mandatory.
Some fall protection equipment is similar to those that are used for mountain climbing. As the years went by, with more observation and research, the protective equipment changed. The fall protection equipment requirements vary based on the type of workplace and the kind of employee using it. For instance, workers climbing on ladders or step ladders just require basic protection, whereas order picker or other similar machinery users need special harnesses and lanyards to help arrest their fall.
While the equipment remains relatively similar across the construction, mining, or manufacturing industries, some additional gear may be added depending on the situation.
Evolution of Fall Protection Equipment
It is crucial to understand the history of fall protection equipment to learn why we use different materials today. What worked 10 years ago will not work in the current situation. What works today may not be sufficient in the future. Over the years, the equipment has changed and will change.
Body Belts for Protection
The first mandated fall protection equipment was body belts for workers who needed to work at a height. These body belts were prevalent during the 1970s through 1980s. 100% tie-off criteria were added for those in the construction industry, which meant that the body belt needed to be secured by two lanyards.
Although workers found that tying and untying the lanyards was time-consuming, the use of multiple lanyards ensured that there would always be one secure point of attachment, even in transition areas.
Full Body Harness for Protection
During the 1990s, the full-body harness came into play. This protective equipment was widely used in every workplace as it protected workers from fall-related injury and spinal and internal organ damage.
When using body belts, it was observed that workers could sustain injuries even from a short suspension period. Full-body harnesses added a D-ring system which helped in effective weight distribution and made the equipment more comfortable.
Advances in Materials
Apart from changing the equipment and its design, changes in materials and mechanisms aided fall protection. Better materials used for fall protective gear made them more comfortable to wear, more resistant to wear and tear, and be comfortable even for heavier workers.
Retractable lanyards were introduced, which improved emergency rescue efforts. These retractable lanyards helped in reducing sudden stops, fall distance and helped with paced deceleration as well. Overall, the introduction of retractable lanyards helped in reducing fatalities and fall-related injuries in the workplace.
Fall Protection Guidelines
Another milestone in the history of fall protection is the 2011 OSHA guidelines for fall protection, which expanded the 1999 guidelines to include residential home construction. According to these guidelines:
- Personal fall arrest systems must not allow a worker to fall more than 6 feet or lower than the next contact level;
- The personal fall arrest system should bring a worker to a complete stop and should restrict maximum deceleration distance to 3.5 feet; and
- A personal fall arrest system should have the strength needed to withstand twice the impact energy of a worker, free-falling up to 6 feet (or the fall distance permitted by the system, whichever is less).
Given the present importance of fall protection systems, it is hard to imagine when they were unregulated. The history of fall protection in the US shows how important it is to ensure the safety of workers and prevent fatalities. Employers must be more responsible for their employees’ well-being and enjoy a comfortable and safe working environment.
The establishment of OSHA can be seen as the start of stringent fall protection regulation in the American workplace.