An article from an issue of risk management magazine from four years ago states that “falls are responsible for about 18 percent of injuries and about 14 percent of fatalities in the workplace.” Given this, falls are a job hazard that obviously cause significant concern among employers and risk managers. OSHA is currently revising its 30-year-old fall protection standards and adding design and performance requirements as part of its effort to substantially reduce the number of fatalities and injuries resulting from workplace falls. As you might expect from any governmental agency, OSHA isn’t openly releasing any public information about exactly what its standards will be for reducing falls – in fact, final comprehensive regulations aren’t expected to be released until April 2008. ANSI recently issued a consensus standard which OSHA is widely expected to duplicate.
One company, however, isn’t falling under any false assumptions – it already offers the best fall protection systems that will meet, if not exceed, any OSHA standards. That’s why it’s called Fall Protection Systems, Inc.
Originally a millwright company, Fall Protection Systems was founded 15 years ago with the entrepreneurial itch of building a better mousetrap. In this case, that older mousetrap was a tightly tensioned cable strung between two anchor points that served as a tie off for someone working at height. The worker hooked a lanyard to the cable with the expectation that the system would arrest a fall safely. Better than striking the ground and breaking bones, perhaps, but sometimes the fall arrest can be hazardous since these systems “bounce the victim” to a halt, often causing soft tissue (akamusculo-skeletal) injuries.
“Even though safety cables were the most popular approach to fall prevention up until 1994, the fact is, there’s a better way,” notes Bob Babin, company co-founder and director of marketing and sales, product manager. “Essentially, the cable works like a rubber band, since the worker is hooked up to a tightly strung cable with over 1,000 pounds of constant tension. The fall victim starts dropping, and the cable tightens and stretches, then when he literally gets to the end of the initial descent, the cable suddenly springs back, bouncing the victim up and down several times. In the industry, this is called a ‘secondary fall,’ and frequently the jolt of a secondary fall can be damaging to the victim. Because the worker drops several feet before the fall is arrested, it increases the chances of the victim hitting something below, such as a railroad car coupling.”
Babin also points out, “Additionally, to minimize these effects of cable deflection and spring back, larger systems can’t span long distances without the use of expensive intermediate supports, which add to the complexity and cost of the installation. It also adds obstructions to the workplace on the ground, as well, at an annual maintenance and inspection cost of more than $1,000. Plus, we are a turnkey manufacturer, which means we use our own people to install what we sell.”
So what is a better mousetrap? “We came up with a unique self-supporting trolley beam design for which we already have two patents, and are applying for a third,” Babin explains. “It’s essentially an integrated triangular truss design supported by vertical support columns positioned horizontally, where the third leg of the truss is a trolley rail. This high strength design is similar to a crane boom. It lets you span long distances without the need for intermediate support columns, while also minimizing typical fall distances to less than two feet, with no secondary fall bounces. In fact, in most cases, falls are typically arrested before the worker even falls far enough to strike his knees while traversing a walking surface.” The high strength truss can span distances up to 100 feet (over 30 meters) between columns with a cantilever of 30 feet extending past both end supports!
Consequently, despite the additional steel required by this system vs. wire rope systems, FPS trolley beam systems are very comparable in cost to other designs.
It’s such a better mousetrap, in fact, that Fall Protection Systems has replaced hundreds of safety cable systems in recent years. It has also has attracted a fair share of imitators, which the company doesn’t take as flattery. “Over the last 14 years, we’ve initiated 10 patent infringement actions,” says Babin. “Our competition now recognizes that the FPS trolley beam system is a safer way to protect against falls. However, our unique integrated truss and trolley rail design is our intellectual property.
This is why the Hazelwood, Mo., company is the leading fall protection system supplier to American industries, as well as the railroad industry. “Those industries recognize us not only as a leader in fall protection systems, but also that we have the industry knowledge and experience required to design systems that anticipate the potential hazards of their operating conditions,” Babin says.
Since the 1970s, OSHA has applied fall protection standards under Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, commonly as “the general duty clause,” which requires employers to “furnish to each of its employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees.” Section 5(a)(2) requires employers to “comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.”
But, says Babin, “The trouble with many of the current standards is that they are too vaguely written to defend in court, and they really aren’t being enforced. One exception, for example, was an October 1996 ruling in response to a complaint that grain loading facilities involving railroad cars and tractor trailers must have what OSHA termed as requiring fall protection ‘contiguous to a facility’ and another which required use of fall protection ‘where feasible.’ Because these terms are not specific enough to be understood and enforced by the court system, they have not been enforced.”
In late 2007, the American National Standards Institute, at the request of and with participation from OSHA employees, developed and issued a set of standards called the ANSI Z359.1 Managed Fall Protection Program (MFPP). The ANSI standard is a consensus standard for fall protection requirements and best safety practices to develop a fall protection program. These standards surpass the OSHA standards in both scope and application. The ANSI standards were written by a committee of knowledgeable safety experts from OSHA, the American Society of Safety Engineers, as well as representatives from the American Insurance Industry, several Fall Protection Equipment Manufacturers, several large Unions, and a very broad group of experts from a wide diversity of American Industry. Babin points out, “These ANSI guidelines set a professional example for OSHA to follow. What the committee essentially did was to provide the basis for OSHA to develop a definitive set of standards for fall protection that will affect virtually every sector of American Industry.”
Finally, with the introduction of enforceable OSHA regulations on fall protection after more than 30 years of study, Babin says, “Starting two years ago, we began expanding our manufacturing capacity. We’ve installed two significant additions to our Madison, Ill. manufacturing plant and added several new employees as we have geared up to support the equipment needs of our customers.”
Babin says that the equipment we produce is akin to a “big erector set. The idea is to have interchangeable components that can be pulled from inventory and configured to fit a specific design.” It also makes it easy to expand to an existing installation. “There is no limit on the total length of our system. We have several multiuser systems in the field that exceed 1,000 feet in continuous length,” he notes, “and the cost is surprisingly affordable”.
Fall Protection Systems also makes and installs custom light packages employing efficient high intensity sealed lighting fixtures to provide maximum illumination with a wide horizontal spread of light. In addition to the fall protection system itself, the company makes a line of ancillary staircase, platform and gangway systems that provide a high level of safety to access a rail car or trailer. The AR vehicle access systems offer a slip resistant staircase and platform with guardrails, and a spring-loaded lightweight gangway. All AR systems include a platform and staircase to minimize climbing accidents typical in winter months. Gangways, or access ramps, are typically made of corrosion resistant aluminum. While there are a series of standard models, including portable systems, Babin points out, “Utilizing our “erector set style of standard engineered components, we can custom design the appropriate systems for any specific application; in fact we do hundreds of custom installations of this type every year.”
The systems use a considerable amount of steel – on average, about 30 pounds of steel per linear foot for the trusses – and the cost of this raw material has driven up product costs. “These last two to three years, steel prices have gone through the roof,” Babin says. “Since we use so much steel, we are able to purchase large runs to take advantage of volume discounts, but that only reduces costs so much. So, unfortunately, we’ve had no choice but to raise our prices. Manufacturing efficiencies are a daily subject for discussion, and our manufacturing operation has become incredibly diligent at controlling costs. Our orders grew 40 percent in the first half of our 2007-08 fiscal year, so we believe we’re handling this effectively.”
Babin emphasizes that while the company offers what it calls, “turnkey solutions,” every installation requires up-front design considerations for the specific site and use. “The site survey comes free of charge,” Babin explains. “I can’t overemphasize how important this process is for us to understand the needs of the particular application to design an effective system at acceptable cost to our customer.”
COMPLETE INSTALLATION SERVICE
Typically, Fall Protection Systems uses its highly experienced technicians to perform the installation. It does, however, sell standardized kits. “We don’t just ship a kit to a customer and expect them to figure out how to put it up,” Babin says. Our installation instructions are a work of art in themselves, with color photographs and simple to read text to guide an experienced millwright crew through each operation step by step, and we have a hotline available for any questions that may arise.”
Fall Protection Systems currently employs 10 full time installation crews; three of which dig and pour the concrete footings, and seven are dedicated to the erection of the system. “After the footings go in, we have to allow the concrete to cure, so it’s about 30 days later that we start to erect the system,” Babin says. He adds, “What might take an inexperienced subcontractor weeks to install, we typically complete in one or two days. We own the latest installation equipment – including cranes, augurs, man lifts and laser leveling systems – and we always have all the tools we need when we arrive to do an installation. Our years of professional experience eliminate wasted time and costly errors.”
The company claims to have replaced over 100 of competitor systems precisely as a result of improper engineering or faulty installation. “An example would include a system that allows the fall arrest victim to fall too far, with the potential to strike a lower surface. These are the kinds of details you need to know to install a system that is going to be as safe as possible,” Babin emphasizes.
According to Babin, just having a fall protection system isn’t enough to prevent injury. “We emphasize training. All our customers get a 40-minute training video that covers not only just basic maintenance and what’s required for yearly recertification, but also what to do should a fall occur. For example, there is something called ‘harness trauma,’ which is a recognized medical condition. When someone is left hanging in a harness for more than 15 minutes, a physical condition results called orthostatic or venous pooling in which the blood circulation to the legs is inhibited. If you suddenly move that person, there can be a rush of blood through your circulatory system that can cause further complications. So, how to handle a fall arrest victim is very important, and something we want all our customers to be properly prepared for.”
When a fall occurs, the trolley beam system itself does not require recertification. However, there is an indicator on the self-retracting lifeline; if that indicator shows a red reading, it will require recalibration.
Babin points out that for all of its thousands of installations and all the years of the company’s existence, he is not aware of a single injury that resulted from the arrest of a fall with their systems.
Fall Protection Systems also backs all of its products and installation with a five year, “no strings attached” unlimited warranty that the company says is the best in the industry.
That’s a pretty outstanding reputation to fall back on.