Fall Safety for the Ironworker

Because ironworkers are getting bigger, manufacturers are finding it more challenging to build systems that comply with the 1,800-pound maximum arresting force requirements.

By Marty Sharp
Jul 01, 2003

SOME years ago, I built a harness for an ironworker who had an 80-inch waist and 54-inch thighs. He was bigger around than he was tall. I asked the Safety Director if a person this size should even be 6 feet off the ground. He said, this is a “Right-to-Work” state and if you don’t outfit him, we will have bigger issues. We built him the harness and put him in a short, heavy-duty lanyard. Incidentally, it had more grommets than we’ve ever put on a waist belt.

The OSHA Standard

The latest steel erection standard put forth by OSHA–29 CFR 1926, Subpart R–is broad in scope. It encompasses new construction, alteration, or repair of “structures” when the erection of steel takes place.

In addition to buildings, the standard includes Cranes, Bins, Hoppers, Ovens, Furnaces, Amusement Park Rides, Stadiums, Bridges, Trestles, Overpasses, Aqueducts, Billboards, and Light Towers, among examples of types of structures covered. Specifically excluded from coverage are Tanks, Electrical Transmission Towers, and Communication or Broadcast Towers.

Basically, every employee walking or working more than 15 feet above a lower level must be protected. Paragraph 1926.760 (a) says the worker shall be protected from fall hazards by:

(1) Guardrail Systems
(2) Safety Net Systems
(3) Fall Restraint Systems
(4) Positioning Device Systems
(5) Personal Fall Arrest Systems

Acceptable criteria for each of these systems are spelled out in Appendix G to Subpart R.

Guardrails should have a top height of 45 inches above the walking level with mid-rails installed in the halfway position, if there is no wall or parapet at least 21 inches high. When conditions warrant, the height of the top edge may exceed 45 inches provided the system meets all other required criteria. The system must withstand a force of not less than 200 pounds when applied within 2 inches of the top edge. Refer to Appendix G in Subpart R for complete specifications.

Safety Net Systems, when used, are to be installed as close as practicable under the working surface, never more than 30 feet. The nets will extend outward from the work surface as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1.

Vertical distance from working level
to horizontal plane of net
Minimum required horizontal distance of outer edge of net from the edge of the working surface
Up to 5 feet 8 feet
More than 5 feet up to 10 feet 10 feet
More than 10 feet 13 feet

There must be sufficient clearance underneath to prevent contact with the surface below when subjected to a specified drop test. Mesh openings cannot exceed 6 inches by 6 inches. Nets must be inspected weekly and after any use.

Positioning Device Systems are designed to allow a worker to be supported on an elevated vertical surface, such as a wall or column, and work with both hands free. Harnesses or body belts are acceptable. The “system” must be secured to an anchorage capable of supporting at least twice the potential impact load of an employee’s fall or 3,000 pounds, whichever is greater, and must be rigged to limit the employee’s free fall to 2 feet or less.

D-Rings and snaphooks must be tested to minimum tensile load of 3,600 pounds. Connecting assemblies are required to have a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds.

Personal Fall Arrest Systems must meet the following four criteria:

(1) The maximum arresting force on an employee must be limited to 1,800 pounds.
(2) The employee cannot free-fall more than 6 feet or contact any lower level.
(3) The employee must be brought to a complete stop, and the deceleration distance
of travel must not exceed 3.5 feet.
(4) The system must be strong enough to withstand twice the potential impact energy
of an employee free-falling 6 feet or the free-fall distance allowed by the system, whichever is less.

The above requirements are primarily the responsibility of the equipment manufacturer. The employer also must follow through with specific responsibilities:

(a) Custody of the equipment.
(b) Equipment must be inspected for wear, damage, and deterioration prior to each use.
(c) When subjected to impact loading, Fall Arrest Systems and components must
be immediately removed from service. They may not be used again until inspected
and determined by a competent person to be undamaged and suitable for reuse.
(d) “The employer shall provide for the prompt rescue of employees in the event of a
fall or shall assure that employees are able to rescue themselves.”
And perhaps the most important task of all:
(e) The training of personnel, as described in paragraph 1926.761.

A Personal Experience

In the 1980s, I worked for a wire rope company that manufactured wire slings, nylon slings, lifting products, etc. One of my duties was manufacturing rope lanyards, which I made by the thousands at home on piecework.

One of the lanyards I made was for a young gentleman who was working on a building in downtown Phoenix. I had also sold him a safety belt and Haven Grip to tension the perimeter rope on the building where he was working. After some time, the teeth on the Haven Grip wore out. He was pulling on the grip, which caused it to slip. So did he, approximately 140 feet. He had had the safety belt on and the lanyard clipped to his belt loop. His friend said when he hit the ground, he bounced.

I got a call from the job site after the body was removed. They didn’t get a chance to clean up the blood and bits of flesh, and as it was 105 degrees outside, the smell reminded me of what it must be like to work in a slaughterhouse. I remember vomiting and looking around and noticing I was not the only one who had. When asked my opinion on the situation, I recall saying, “It doesn’t matter how good the fall protection you are using is . . . if you don’t tie off, you’ll die off.”

In the 20-plus years I have been in the lifting products and fall protection industry, I’ve been personally involved in more than a dozen fatalities–not through product failure, but lack of education. As you can imagine, I’m a big advocate of safety seminars and training. In my seminars, I show graphic statistics and actual videos of what it looks like when a human being hits the ground. Some people find this offensive, but I find most people won’t pay attention until you hit them over the head with a sledgehammer or they see how far their buddy can bounce off the ground after a fall.

A Changing Situation! 

Because ironworkers are getting bigger, manufacturers are finding it more challenging to build systems that comply with the 1,800-pound maximum arresting force requirements. During the past few decades, Americans have gotten bigger and bigger around. I refer to it as the “Burger King” generation. We have had many challenges on how to exceed the 310-pound limit on harness capacity.

For example, a few years ago, I dealt with an ironworker who weighed 350 pounds, not including tools. The Safety Director noticed the harness capacity was 310 pounds. He wanted us to perform a test with a test torso of 350 pounds at a 6-foot drop with a standard shock-absorbing lanyard. The maximum hit to the body that ANSI will allow is 1,800 pounds before a possible spinal injury occurs. We performed the test, and the resulting impact was 1,827.2 pounds. The Safety Director said, “Well, the employee has to go.”

I tried to explain to him that a test torso is a rigid weight and the human body is more resilient, that it has more shock-resistant properties. A simple formula can be devised to calculate what the actual impact would be on a human body. This was unacceptable to him, so I immediately said Arizona is a “Right-to-Work” state and big people have a right to work, too.

I just performed the test again using a retractable lanyard, reducing the free fall, and the test result was 1,120.5 pounds. So off to work he went.

Positive Changes

Other changes are occurring. I’ve been of the opinion that things such as beamers (sliding beam anchors) were ironworkers’ best friend until they came out with sky hooks or anti-gravity boots. Problem one was that if the man was tied off at his feet and was standing up, he would drop the distance from his feet and the back D-ring plus the length of the lanyard. Because most steel structures don’t have 18-foot ceilings, this caused the employee to be slammed into the lower level, possibly shattering his legs.

Also, most shock-absorbing lanyards are not designed for more than a 6-foot drop, but we and many other manufacturers have developed lanyards with a greater deceleration length so the employee will not bottom out on the shock pack and go over the 1,800-pound limit. The problem with this is that instead of shattering his legs, the employee might shatter a hip or his spine, increasing the sale of wheelchairs.

Beamers are great in overhead applications; but in steel erection, to install, attach, or detach, you’d have to be a 7-foot NBA player like Shaq or Yao Ming to reach the beam. Horizontal lifelines are now commonplace.

I think in the early ’90s, most manufacturers never had to wear a harness. The early products were heavy, abrasive to the skin, and in a lot of situations, you’d have to be a Houdini to get in and out of them. The successful manufacturer listened to the end user and made drastic modifications. Today’s harnesses are softer, lighter in weight, and equipped with quick-release mechanisms so the employees can take them off for lunch. Because of an anti-tangle feature, they no longer turn into a knot when dropped to the ground.

Another trend I have seen is an emphasis on “what looks cool.” For example, eye protection has given employees the choice between looking like Clark Kent or the Terminator–and they chose the Terminator. If the employee likes it, he will use it. Keep in mind that it is extremely difficult for the worker to tie off a harness to an anchorage point if he is not wearing it.

OSHA has mandated the protection of ironworkers from falls. As we continue working together, manufacturers, employers, and employees can make it happen!