Preventing Falls from Elevations

by Katie Pfeifer, The Sandner Group

Slips, trips, and falls are some of the most common hazards facing employees across all industries. It is estimated that $70 billion1 in financial compensation has been spent on accidents related to falls. Hundreds of workers are killed and thousands more are injured by falls annually. In the classroom setting, school district employees are also subject to this risk. Falls from elevations are the most serious types of falls, causing injury, loss of work, and extremely costly expenditures for the district. There are regulations and industry standards in place for fall prevention and protection, but persistent, unsafe practices and low safety standards contribute to steady fall injury rates, year after year.

A fall often occurs due to a lack of access to the proper tools. When ladders and step stools are not made available to faculty members, teachers will often stand on a chair or desk to retrieve items out of their reach. These common classroom objects are not intended to be used for anything other than their designated purpose. Using a chair or desk as a replacement for a step stool is extremely dangerous. They are not sturdy, stable, or intended to support a standing adult’s weight. Although an average classroom chair does not stand very high from the ground, even a fall from a relatively low height can cause serious injury.

Custodial and maintenance crews are at a particular risk for falls. Although maintenance crews are likely to be equipped with the proper resources, improper use and/or unsafe practices greatly contribute to falls from an elevation. A scaffold is commonly used by maintenance staff when working at an elevated height. When scaffolding is set up, it must be inspected by a supervisor prior to use. Any part of the scaffold that is damaged or weakened needs to be replaced immediately. Unstable walking/working surfaces, and the absence of fall protection, are common scaffold construction mistakes which lead to maintenance workers injuring themselves from a fall.

The district should make ladders and step stools available to all faculty members. Ladders provided for teachers’ use should be lightweight aluminum, so that they are easy to move and set up. Consider providing one ladder for every ten classrooms in a building. Ladders must be in good condition and the rungs and steps must be corrugated, knurled, dimpled, or coated with skid resistant material to minimize slipping. Keep ladders free of oil, grease, and other slipping hazards.

The district should also educate district employees on safe ladder use, and require employees to follow the safety guidelines. Ladders are tools: many of the basic safety rules that apply to most tools apply to ladders as well. Inspect the ladder before use to ensure it is in good working condition. Only place the ladder on firm, level ground. Specific safety guidelines are provided on the side of the ladder; anyone unfamiliar with the safety information is not qualified to use the ladder. Advise employees to only climb step ladders to an elevation where their waist is at the same height as the top step of the ladder (typically, the second or third highest step of the ladder). Do not use the cross bracing on the rear section of stepladders for climbing. Metal spreaders or a locking device must be provided to hold the front and back sections in an open position. Do not splice short ladders together to increase the extension.

A fall from an elevation is one of the most serious accidents an employee can experience. With the proper training and equipment, the possibility of this type of accident decreases dramatically. If you have any questions regarding loss control, or risk prevention, please contact your Loss Control Specialist.

1 National Floor Safety Institute.