When I was a teenager, I often performed odd jobs throughout my neighborhood for a few extra bucks. I’d mow lawns, shovel snow, rake leaves and paint houses. However, twice a year for about five years running before I went to college, I would get the dreaded call from a sweet old lady a few houses down. “Jim, can you come by today and clean the leaves and debris from my gutters, please? My downspouts are backing up,” she would explain.
Why would I dread it? Well, my father’s rickety old wooden extension ladder was about 20 feet long fully extended, and her gutters were just over 20 feet off the ground. Perfect, right? Wrong! A 20-foot ladder leaning against a wall with enough slope to ensure it does not fall away from the wall or slip out while climbing doesn’t reach 20 feet. This meant that I would have to work from the top couple of rungs of the ladder and lean back from the wall to reach the eaves. I could only clean out a couple of feet of gutter at a time before I would have to climb down and move the ladder again. It was a pesky task, but it was great money, or so I thought: $5 and a couple of homemade cookies for an hour of high-flying aerial circus work cleaning out slop.
Every time I think about that job now I get a shiver down my spine. What scares me is not my near-death experiences, but rather the fact that this kind of situation happens daily with professional contractors and service workers who work on and around residential homes. Whether it’s reroofing houses, installing satellite and cable systems, or even cleaning out gutters, providing fall protection for finished residential buildings can be difficult to set up and does not always seem cost efficient. But, is the alternative any better? Falls while working on ladders and residential roofs account for lost time, thousands of accidents and hundreds of deaths across North America every year.
Providing Proper Fall ProtectionIs fall protection easy to install and use safely on residential buildings? As with any task in any industry, providing for fall protection without the proper tools and training is difficult; however, it is a necessary task, and with the right tools and education, it can be feasible as well.
Most other industries have realized that working unprotected at heights can be one of the most dangerous things done on a jobsite. Companies have implemented complex fall protection plans, provided training for workers and generated a demand for complex fall arrest systems customized for their particular applications and needs. So, one may ask, why does apathy for fall protection exist for workers on finished residential homes? For one, these tasks may be something most people do every day in their lives away from work, whether it be cleaning out gutters, putting up their Christmas lights or patching a leaky roof. Because of this, the risk is sometimes not perceived. Secondly, enforcement by legislators has not driven the requirement to the degree that has occurred in many other industries. Finally, and in the defense of workers on residential structures, proper tools and systems have not been developed or are not readily available for simple setup and protection in these applications.
Fall Protection on Residential StructuresThe most important aspects of working safely on and around residential homes at heights are developing procedures for safe work and implementing training for workers who might be doing that work. The procedures should include different options for workers depending upon the type of building and job being performed. Work on the eaves of a two-story saltbox requires a different plan than working on the roof of a ranch-style bungalow. Training should include identification of hazards and the means available to minimize them, as well as the proper use of adequate tools to provide fall protection in a variety of situations.
Training should include standard safe work practices when using ladders, such as determining safe angles, ensuring ladders extend above roof edges at least 3 feet for safe access, maintaining three points of contact, and tying ladders off or using a “buddy” to hold the ladder during use. Also, training should include discussion of the variety of other options available to improve the level of fall protection for these situations. Some examples include using man-lifts and bucket trucks to gain safe access. Although one would expect these options to add cost to a job, they can actually save a great deal in labor costs by providing easy access and a safe location for tools and equipment during the work, and they are much safer than a portable ladder.
Other cost-efficient options include the use of newly designed fall protection anchors that can be installed to work safely at heights. A myriad of permanent and temporary roof anchors exist that can be installed at the peak or down the slope of a roof to provide safe work at the roof edge or while working from an extension ladder on the side of the house with a vertical lifeline and rope grab system as protection. The cost for these anchors ranges from $20 to $100, and many available anchors can be installed in a matter of minutes.
Another option for fall protection can be implemented by throwing a ball with a rope attached to it over the roof prior to working at heights. The rope can act as a tagline to pull a vertical lifeline up and over the building. Once over the house, the vertical lifeline can be anchored to a secure structure on the other side (i.e., large tree, or the frame of a locked-out vehicle). It can then be used with a rope grab and short shock-absorbing lanyard for protection while on the ladder or scaffold. Alternately, many manufacturers are now coming up with new ideas to allow protection and installation of safe anchor points for work, such as a door or window jamb anchor. This anchor is designed to temporarily install into the bottom of a finished door or window frame. It will not damage the frame, installs in seconds and provides a suitable anchor point for fall arrest protection. With an anchor like this, I can imagine a cable TV installer opening the second story window of a bathroom safely from the inside of the home, installing the window jamb anchor and then dropping down a tagline to access a self-retracting lifeline anchored to the D-ring on the anchor once outside again. This would not only provide protection while working at heights but also while climbing up and down ladders.
As the need grows, the design of new anchors and systems is expected. It is unfortunate that until enforcement increases, some workers and some companies will not be likely to provide protection for themselves until there is a motivator in the form of fines or shutdowns, rather than simply working safely to ensure they get home at the end of the day.