The Essentials of Fall Protection

Aircraft mechanics work at varied heights above ground level. A fall from such heights, without fall protection or prevention equipment, can mean death or otherwise serious injuries. Interestingly, some consider the use of fall protection equipment to be optional. In actuality, there are Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements in the United States for such systems. OSHA requires that workers on surfaces “with an unprotected side or edge which is 6 feet or more above a lower level shall be protected  from falling by the use of guardrail systems, safety-net systems, or personal fall-arrest systems.” Falls can occur from any height, meaning this should be treated as a minimum requirement.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 303,800 injuries as a result of falls from height in the year 2000 alone. It is estimated that slips, trips, and falls account for 15 to 20 percent of the 300,000 disabling injuries that occur each year in the U.S workforce. These startling statistics illustrate how important it is that maintenance professionals and hangar management understand the need for fall protection systems and the correct way to utilize them. If used properly, these systems can greatly reduce the amount and severity of injuries sustained from falls.

Lack of compliance

So why is fall protection equipment going unused? In a study by Kimberly-Clark, 85 percent of safety professionals said they witnessed non-use of equipment in hazardous conditions, and user comfort is one of the main reasons why. Harnesses and equipment are often described as uncomfortable and restricting. A large amount of harnesses on the market are designed to be a one size fits most solution. This isn’t always suitable. There are many ways these issues can be addressed with the latest in fall protection equipment. A more comfortable alternative is a harness with adjustable straps along the shoulders, chest, and legs.

In addition to the lack of comfort, mechanics may feel that a system restricts their mobility and prevents them from completing a task in the timeliest manner. A harness made of a flexible material with the correct fit is a good solution.  

Some mechanics will avoid using protective equipment for the simple reason that they don’t think they are at risk of injury. Having worked as an A&P for 20 years, it may be difficult to admit that accidents still can happen. This is the wrong attitude to have when in a situation where a fatal fall is possible. When ego is put aside, there are many protection systems available.

Basics of fall protection systems

There are three main methods used in reducing the chances of damaging falls in the hangar. The first and highly recommended is fall prevention. With fall prevention, the workplace is actually modified to minimize hazards. This includes, but is not limited to, installing protective railings or using mobile work platforms. Mobile work platforms are adjustable height work stations that can be set at optimum heights. Users can find an efficient, comfortable, and safe height for their individual tasks. Dave Thomas, of Capital Safety fall protection systems, states that fall prevention is the ideal, “Usually you would want to try to create a situation where you would not need fall protection. That is what we would typically advise.” He also notes that fall prevention may not always be the realistic approach. “That is kind of difficult when you need to repair or replace a light on the top of a fuselage.”

When a fall prevention plan is not feasible, a fall restraint plan would be the next best option. A fall restraint system uses equipment to prevent a fall from height including a lanyard, anchor point, and harness. Thomas explains “Fall restraint keeps the user from reaching the edge and that is very valuable. Basically what it means is that they are a person on a leash so to speak where they just can’t get far enough out to fall.”

Yet another option is a fall arrest system. When using a fall arrest system, protective equipment is put into place in order to stop a fall that is already in progress. This entails attaching the harness worn to a retracting lifeline or shock-absorbing lanyard, attached to a secure anchor. Just how the style of protection varies for each task, so does the type of lanyard used within the system. 

Lanyards and anchors

Each lanyard has its own specific use or purpose. Shock-absorbing lanyards, like those used in fall arrest systems, are typically made of synthetic webbing that absorbs much of the impact during a fall. This prevents the concentration of impact on the system wearer’s chest or torso. To reduce the chances of triggering a fall, a self-retracting lifeline may be used. The cord lengthens and shortens with movements to reduce the chance of the cord tripping the worker.

With a job that spans over a larger area, like an aircraft wing, a horizontal lifeline may be the best option. A horizontal lifeline features a cable running between two anchorage points. Its length can be directly determined by the space that needs to be covered. All lanyards are connected to an anchorage point. Some complain that the installation of anchor systems is too time consuming and also that they could potentially cause damage to the aircraft exterior. Manufacturers have addressed these concerns with the vacuum anchor.

A vacuum anchor offers quick installation, is non-threatening to the aircraft exterior, and still provides quality protection. A typically lightweight and portable solution, vacuum anchors are easy to install. A gauge on the unit will show when the vacuum process is complete and the anchor is ready to use. A secondary anchor can be used to cover an expansive area, and is suitable for use inside and out. Additionally, they can be mounted both vertically and horizontally, adding to their convenience. With numerous system options, there are still some challenges.

System challenges

The biggest challenge that maintenance professionals face is finding a fall protection system that will work for their individual hangar or task. Manufacturers are aware of this and are finding ways to work with equipment users to provide exactly what they are looking for in a system.

“We have worked with mechanics to determine what they need and what is an easy solution for them,” states Thomas. In his research they have found that mechanics are looking for “something that is comfortable to wear, very easy to use. They are going to look for something that is very comfortable because it is basically a piece of clothing for them in a way. If it’s not comfortable they are not going to use it. And also something just very easy to use, something that doesn’t require a lot of setup, doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.”

In addition to working with mechanics to develop new products, many companies provide onsite training and systems setup.

From there it is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that workers know how to use the system and consistently do so, and with the variety of equipment and setups available, there is no reason not to.

For more information on fall protection systems and components visit Capital Safety at www.capitalsafety.com or Fall-Arrest at www.aircraft-fall-protection.com. To review OSHA requirements for fall protection visit their website at www.osha.gov.

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