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Fall Protection and HVAC Maintenance

January 11, 2010 Fall Protection
Orthostatic Shock

Hi, my last post about fall distance brought me a related question, and I thought the answer I gave might be of interest to the rest of our readers.

What kind of fall protection do I need for maintenance work on an HVAC system about 14 feet off the ground? It seems ridiculous to install a railing system for this kind of short-term work.

For a general question like this, I usually find it useful to think about broad approaches to Fall Protection safety. This can help to point out a workable solution. First, an example of the problems in viewing a short fall distance as something less than a real problem…

I have a friend named Steve who worked as a glazier. He was at a job in San Francisco on Post Street, on one of those small rolling scaffolds about 4 feet off the ground, working on the caulk around a store window. He lost his balance, fell and broke his neck. This put him in one of those ‘halo’ devices for about a year. He has since recovered, but not to the point of returning to work, and remains on full disability.

In the absence of a railing or other restraining device, the fellow should certainly be wearing fall protection. The usual components are a full body harness, shock absorbing lanyard, and a fall rated anchor point. This much is pretty straightforward. What I would like you to think about are the particular details of the work site. An example would be a swing fall; the lanyard is properly attached, catches you, but you swing like a pendulum into an object, causing some degree of injury. This is way more common than you might suppose.

So even if you wear the safety related fall protection items properly, there is still danger. Should you happen to fall and everything works as it was designed, you still have to get down. This element of rescue is often overlooked and has caused lingering injury and even death. Once you are hanging there in your harness, watching the world go by, what do you do then? First, there is a problem called ‘suspension trauma’, where the blood gets in your legs but doesn’t return due to the constriction of the leg straps. A further explanation may be found on our page about Suspension Trauma, along with a product that we recommend to users of full body harnesses.

Over a relatively short period of time (variable due to weight, fitness and health) you will lose consciousness and perhaps expire. This is while waiting for a rescue. If you were working alone (not a good idea!!), this might not happen right away. And if you hit your head, you might not be yelling! So, your co-worker has to be able to get to you from below, or somehow hoist you from above. All the connectors (hooks) will be under tension, and so will be hard to disconnect.

Another concept that may be useful in this instance is ‘fall restraint’. We still wear the full body harness, and are connected by a lanyard. But the lanyard is attached in such a way that the length will not let you get to the edge. That is, as you approach a point where the work surface falls away, you are held back by the lanyard.

We often say, you need to plan the rescue before you start the job. Hopefully this helps?