Fall Protection: Learning from Tragedies

RAYMOND MANN

Two fatal falls brought a tragic end to the summer of 2021 for fire departments on opposite sides of the U.S. In Maryland, Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services lost Captain Joshua Laird after he fell through the floor of a burning house on August 11. 

And just days later in Washington, Spokane County Fire District 9 was in mourning after Lieutenant Cody Traber fell from the Wandermere Bridge, in the dark on August 26 while trying to locate a reported brush fire.

The human toll of such tragedies is never captured by statistics, of course, as numbers move up and down over the years. The latest year for which official stats are available is 2019. That year saw the lowest annual number of firefighter fatalities since the United States Fire Administration (USFA) began tracking them in 1977, with ​​62 deaths. (This total includes 10 from a heart attack or stroke as defined in the “Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003,” according to the USFA.) The 2019 total was down from the 2018 total of 84 firefighter fatalities.

The USFA reported two firefighters were killed in 2019 from injuries sustained in a fall. One slid off the icy rooftop of a condominium complex. The other fell through a gap between the lanes of an overpass bridge, dropping 52 feet to the ground below.

Broadly across all industries in the U.S., fatal falls, slips and trips increased 11 percent in 2019 to 880, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), which is conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). BLS’ numbers showed that total fatal work injuries recorded in the U.S. inched higher in 2019 by two percent over 2018, rising to 5,333. “A worker died every 99 minutes from a work-related injury in 2019,” BLS reported. (Of note to firefighters: BLS reported that fatalities due to fires and explosions decreased 14 percent to 99 in 2019.)

Falls, slips and trips were the second most common workplace injury nationwide, according to the National Safety Council, accounting for 27.5 percent (244,000) of all occupational injuries involving days away from work in the U.S. in 2019. The NSC’s math puts the injury rate at 23.9 per 10,000 full-time workers. And the organization says the most at-risk industries were transportation, warehousing and agriculture.

The International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) has long been concerned about ensuring that every workplace has access to proper fall-protection equipment. While first responders confront dynamic scenes characterized by fast-changing and often unknown hazards — as well as unstable surfaces and structures that don’t always present suitable anchorage points for personal fall-arrest systems — awareness, training and equipment choices each play a vital role in fall protection.

As ISEA noted in our “Safety at Heights” campaign, fall protection encompasses a wide range of equipment and systems, including anchorage connectors, horizontal lifeline systems, full-body safety harnesses, self-retracting lanyards, positioning systems, twin-leg lanyards, tie-back applications, post-fall suspension products, rescue systems, and more.

The campaign included a free webinar that remains relevant for employers seeking to prevent fatal falls. The webinar featured leading fall protection and dropped objects experts from ISEA and the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), as they discussed ways to implement a successful safety-at-heights program through fall protection product innovations and the new ANSI/ISEA 121 standard to prevent dropped objects, to keep workers safer and their tools secured while working at heights.

When possible, after-action reviews may produce lessons learned from both fatal and nonfatal falls that can be integrated into firefighters’ ongoing training. The estimated cost of all firefighter injuries ranges between $1.6 billion and $5.9 billion annually, according to a report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But the human cost to fallen and injured firefighters, their families and their departments is incalculable.

Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) is the trade association in the U.S. for personal protective equipment and technologies. Its member companies are world leaders in the design, manufacture, testing, and distribution of protective clothing and equipment used in factories, construction sites, hospitals and clinics, farms, schools, laboratories, emergency response, and in the home. Since 1933, ISEA has set the standard for the personal protective equipment industry, supporting member companies united in the goal of protecting the health and safety of people worldwide.

Raymond Mann, QSSP is a former Maryland volunteer firefighter from Concord, North Carolina. He is 3M Personal Safety Division’s Global Senior Specialist Application Engineer and ISEA’s Fall Protection Product Group Chair. 

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