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Safety Podcast: Fall Protection - The Overlooked Danger of Ground-Level Falls

By Alliant Specialty

Eli Mendoza and Luis Torres, Alliant Construction, discuss fall protection, the different behavioral responses towards various fall exposures and why falling on the ground level should be taken as seriously as any other kind of fall.

Eli Mendoza (00:13):
Good day to everybody. Thanks for joining me today. I'm Eli Mendoza, the Safety Director for the Alliant Insurance Construction Services Group. And today I'm going to be having a conversation with Luis Torres, one of my colleagues. Everybody knows that we love to talk. We love to hear each other, but more than anything, I think one of the things that makes us great at what we do is we love to listen to our clients. So today, Luis Torres and myself will lead this podcast on a bit of a spin on a conversation related to fall protection behaviors and how we can help each other out to mitigate risks when it comes to a subject that will impact a lot of different industries, not just the ones that we specialize in, which is construction. So with that said, I want to introduce Mr. Torres, come on board. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Luis Torres (01:05):
Thanks Eli. Hi everyone. This is Luis Torres. I'm one of the Senior Loss Control Consultants that works here at Alliant and in the loss control department. A little bit about myself. I have been with Alliant for 7 years. Prior to Alliant and functioning as a Loss Control Consultant, I also worked with a consulting firm also in a very similar capacity. And so, yeah, it's kind of interesting to hear each other out and then just listen to other safety folks. Talk about this topic that we're touching on today, which is it's kind of a big topic. It's one of the most important ones that we can think about because of the reality that it's year after year, one of the leading causes of people losing their lives.

Eli Mendoza (01:48):
Just a little bit of background to everybody that's listening. When we were originally thinking about fall protection, there's a couple reasons why we went ahead and went with the subject. One is to continue on to what we just finished, which was Fall Protection Safety Month, which was the month of May and the big emphasis that we put on it. However, one of the things that we're looking at is most of the emphasis that we look at when it comes to fall protection is related to exposures when employees or team members are exposed to vertical heights, leading edge type work. But, as we continue on our construction activities, visiting on our client's projects, we tend to see the falls related to those exposures at our foot levels, walking positions, openings on the ground, openings through the floors structures that are sub-grade, such as those that we built up level after excavations trenches, or just vaults that we set in place.

And we conduct these walks, and we see that we don't have the same focus when it comes to these exposures, but yet they are causing a lot of serious injuries and potentially fatalities. I mean, we see it day in and day out. And it's a common trend that I've been observing this year, right? One of the most common questions that we get from our clients is, what's happening? What is going on out there? And a lot of times the answer is like right in front of us. And we tend to sometimes not focus on it for some given reason. So that's the subject that we want to get to is, and one is the sub-grade, sub-level of floor openings. And why do we not see those as serious as leading edge work when we can potentially also lose their lives with that? What are your thoughts on that Luis?

Luis Torres (03:34):
Yeah, I think what you're saying is really eye opening, when you think about the responses of people who their main role in the company that they work for is to look for risk and to try to control it. Whether these safety managers had accompanies or loss control consultants, risk engineers that work for the insurance company. Part of what we did, just so that you guys know, a question was posed to our team, to our loss control folks, because we have a number of loss control consultants and the question was essentially what comes to mind when you think of fall prevention. That was part one. And so, the responses were almost universally, as Eli mentioned, this falls from heights, falls from leading edges, vertical fall hazards. The first thing that comes to mind is that almost universally with a few exceptions, but almost everyone says the same thing.

They will talk about ladders and saying, oh yeah, ladders too. Yeah, we got to be careful with ladders there. People can fall off ladders. And then usually down on the list is the floor holes that Eli just mentioned. And it's interesting when you unpack that part of it, we'll talk about some of the follow-up questions later, but that tells you a lot about what we're focused on. And we don't often hear about people falling from leading edges. It just, we don't, I don't want to speak for everyone else, but what we do often hear about is someone falling over the same level that they're working on tripping on basically the working level. And unfortunately, we also hear about people falling from the ladder position. Perhaps we realize intuitively that someone falling from a height will lead to a definite, severe injury.

Someone tripping on the floor that they walk on and may just be maybe in our minds, we think only embarrassment or something. And I think that maybe what we would hope to challenge each other with how do we change that perception or that perspective on falls related to those three categories of walking or working services, basically the floor that you're working on or subterranean, like you mentioned, bolts and holes and ladders. It's a challenge. I think that's the reality is that we're faced with this challenge day in and day out.

Eli Mendoza (05:35):
Well, one of the reasons why I feel that this is such a big project is the human element, the behavior that's related to that and trying to figure out a way to get people, to change their perception on risk. I'll give you an example. A week ago, I was walking a project and we walked past this vault and there was a plywood sheet that was covering it. The plywood sheet barely made it over the edge of the vault. And it was unsupported below, meaning that if anybody would have stepped on it, the vault would have been through for the sake of this conversation. I was fortunate that there was an opening in the vault that allowed me to put a measuring tape down the hall and realize that anybody including ourselves were exposed to a 10 foot drop. So outside of the regulatory requirements, anybody could have potentially been seriously injured or exposed to that big one, right? That we don't even want to mention on everybody's straps, you never have as a company or on a personal life. Though the behavioral piece, the impact that we're trying to make with our contractors is something that we tend to focus on. And it's a difficult one because we don't have a simple, straight answer. And we tend to try to support our clients by looking at all different levels of their own employees from the field, all the way up to the executives and the ownership to get everybody to be on the same page when it comes to safety, right? Because budgets are a reality and safety and at times that tends to be seen as a greater reality. So for those folks, we got to talk to them in a different language, meaning numbers and money, and getting them to understand that that incident is going to cost them money. So in return, we can get them to turn around and focus on the safety for the better and the improvement of all of our employees.

Luis Torres (07:22):
The other part that was asked to the team is if you were able to somehow embed into the mind of a worker, three key concepts or takeaways to address this, the mentality or the psychology or their philosophy, or their view on things, what would they be in terms of preventing falls and accidents that are related to falls. And they have a lot to do with very much what you're thinking about as you're going through the course of work. Just a little while ago, I was asking the same question. I've kept asking, beause I think you learn a lot about what our focus is on in line with what was said way other people it's I would remind people that they need to use their fall protection equipment correctly. They have to follow what they've been trained on. I will remind people that they need to use ladders properly.

And so, what we're circling and yet not saying is that we're trying to address the behavioral part so that someone is doing the right thing when no one is watching. So, that they're thinking about the reality of the risk and that they see that a floor hall or a cover. It's not just that there's a cover there, is it secured? Is it adequate before you walk over it or that you drive over it with a piece of equipment on a job site? Because the consequences of that cover not being properly adequate for what you intend to load on there is devastating similar to using a ladder in properly and reaching too far and then falling off of a ladder or what we all most universally have said is someone being exposed to a leading edge and not having the proper type of equipment to protect them, prevent them from falling.

So, that's the big challenge that we're dealing with. How do touch on that behavioral, that deeper psychological part for a worker? I enjoy that challenge. I think that's the part where I love doing training. It is my one opportunity to make an impact in terms of the way someone sees or thinks about their work with the hope that it'll resonate with them. The moment they're actually doing the job because it's one thing to talk about it in program or policy, or even with management. Management will buy in, they get it. They're like, yes, we're going to do all that. We're going to do the training. But at the end of the day, whether you're talking about leading edge work and you're the worker that has to put the harness on and tie off to the right piece of whether, anchor or structural piece, that's going to support you or you're selecting and using a ladder, or you're going to take a step onto that cover. It's on that individual to have the right mentality and to have the right mindset. And that's what I think we love doing in terms of our team. Everyone that I've talked to with our loss control, enjoys that challenge. I think there's a bit of an art and there's some science, the science being that the rules are there and we kind of know what the rules are. The art is, how do you get someone to want to do it when no one else is there to like oversee you.

Eli Mendoza (10:00):
And that's where it gets fun. Right? So, to your point, a lot of us, when we're trying to improve our safety programs and we're analyzing these incidents and we find these trends are high risks, such as the falls that we're talking about. A lot of times we almost think of the results being more of a transaction, meaning, if I provide training, now I'm going to eliminate this and see an immediate increase in the improvement of our safety scores, whether they're insurance related or OSHA incidents related. But the challenge and the fun part is we have to be creative because we're dealing with behaviors. We have to sometimes step away from the regulatory. A lot of times, it's not as important to talk about the six-foot requirement for leading edge work for most contractors or certain entities, but more than anything, talk about a story that provides some type of a takeaway or just captures their attention.

And that's one of the things that I think makes our job a little bit more difficult is because we care and want to change things on the behalf of the contractors. And one of the things we do is when we go out, we change it up. We tend to focus on stories, not necessarily pictures. I just focused on the story. I focused on an experience that I personally had when I had to go investigate the first fall-related fatality at the infancy of my safety career and how I continue to remember that and even now as I speak about it, I see the hairs on my arms stand up and get goosebumps and that I was there after the fact and yet I'm still impacted by that one incident. And a lot of times it's just bringing it home to those not everybody's going to be receptive to the same message. Being creative when it comes to safety is just as important as knowing the standards, because at the end of the day, everybody is different and we want to make an impact with every person. And since everybody is different, we have to understand that our results and our attempts are not always going to be the same ones that we fall too.

Luis Torres (12:03):
No, my dad was hurt when I was a kid. That story is part of what drives my passion for knowing the requirements and part of my desire to want to make a difference in the life of another young worker. You got men and women out there that are trying to make a living. They're trying to make an honest living and it's terrible to see the impact that it has on their family when they're injured or when they're gone, because of something that could have been done differently. No, I think some of our consultants that touched on this, when they talk about, think about the consequences of the fall, you don't realize that you're falling until it's too late. And I know I probably made you laugh. You like when I was like, Hey, you, like compare falling in construction to like falling in love.

My point was that you don't realize it's happening sometimes until you already fell. It’s like the results are there. And I think that's kind of how falls are. And it's unfortunately a big problem within the construction industry. It's actually a problem regardless of the industry, because the consequences are devastating and it can be anybody. I mean, just last week I heard of a guy that fell and injured himself. He was walking on the sidewalk. And so it's that simple to your point, it's the fall working on the same level. It wasn't a guy in a ladder. It wasn't a woman out there doing work at heights and falling from the side of a building or through a skylight, which I heard of unfortunately happened not too long ago from another safety person. So I agree. Those stories, I think, are helpful to put context to the reality of the black and white regulation, where unfortunately it's happening too often and we want to prevent it, but it takes every one of us doing what we can to equip people, both with the material, things that they need, but also the adequate training that they need recognize that hazard.

And at the work they do with maybe otherwise hazardous, if they don't have the right controls in place, it's a great challenge. But I think we face it. Like you said, it's trying to interject the right idea, the right mentality, and hopefully the right outcomes will follow. We want people to be aware it's a problem, but they can do some things about it. Get the right equipment, and use the equipment correctly. The technology is advancing. I mean, there are ladders now that weren't around just five years ago, it's amazing. I'm blown away by the little changes that make it less likely for you to use a ladder improperly. The ladder can literally fold into three different types of ladder. I've seen it used as a step ladder, a shelf ladder, and an extension ladder all in one. Hopefully that's the challenge that we pose to the listener. We don't want to just be great ideas. It’s, let's do something about it. Let’s inspire people to make a difference like we hope to do. I do mean it. It's a better way of managing risk. Have us all participate. Don't let it just be the safety person. Don't let it just be the CEO or CFO or let it be the, I heard this the other day, the CIO, the chief inspiration officer, right? Like your children at home or your family, let them inspire you to do better.

Eli Mendoza (14:59):
Thank you, Luis. Really appreciate it. Everything. I mean, you hit on all the important subjects just to recap. Let's all work together. Let's engage all levels of the company let's look to inspire so that we can motivate and instill the change and that behavior. And in return, hopefully, the next time you walk past an exposure that was probably not considered as serious as it was in the past for you, you’ll react the same way that you would do if you saw somebody working near a leading edge of a three-story building without a harness or a physical barrier to keep them from going down towards that gray concrete. And that's what we do here, is we partner up with our clients. We look at every possible scenario we assess and together we can look to have better results and a safer project. Together we succeed and your safety is the reason why we do what we do. Thank you.


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