The North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration (NCOSHA) Division of Safety Research investigated the fatal fall of an electrical mechanic. The mechanic had fallen through an unguarded floor opening. The division’s report offered three recommendations for preventing future occurrences.

“1. Ensure that employees on walking/working surfaces are protected from falling through holes more than 6 feet above lower levels by personal fall arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems erected around such holes

2. Ensure that employers on multi-employer worksites utilize contract language that clearly defines the safety responsibilities of each contractor prior to the initiation of work

3. Remove employees from areas where an imminent danger has been identified and corrective action has not been completed.”

However, there are more lessons to be learned from this particular case. Let’s take a closer look at the investigation.

The company had been hired to install electrical circuitry at a newly constructed four-story office complex. Two electrical apprentices had been rolling out, measuring and cutting 56-foot lengths of electrical cable from spools. They were rolling the cable in the direction of an unguarded floor opening located 12 feet from the end of the floor and about 100 feet from the electrical room where the spools of cable were placed.

The victim had been off site. Upon his return, he began helping by picking up the cable and walking backward to straighten it for rewinding. While moving backward, he stepped into the unguarded floor opening and fell 45 feet.

A standard guardrail system had been installed around the opening four months earlier. It was also in place when the heating, ventilating and air conditioning workers finished. It was not in place the day of the incident, nor had it been it in place for three weeks prior. No one could recall who had taken the guardrail down.

A regular inspection planned by the general contractor could have revealed that the guardrail was removed. Unfortunately, the fourth-floor inspection was not the top priority.

Clearly, as stated in NCOSHA’s recommendations, contract language could clarify responsibility for the guardrail. However, this recommendation needs to be put in perspective with the others.

NCOSHA’s recommendations also stated employees need to be protected “by personal fall arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems erected around such holes” and to “remove employees from areas where an imminent danger” exists. Consider the application. Regardless of an agreement for responsibility, employees must be protected. The contract is merely paper that calls for action by another party. When the party fails to act, the hazard remains. The burden remains on the employer to act and ensure the protection of its own employees.

The same concept applies to other employer safety responsibilities for ensuring employee safety, such as written programs and training. In this case, the company had a written safety program. The project superintendent was the competent person.

Training on fall protection was provided at a safety meeting two weeks prior to the incident. During the electrical contractor’s inspection of the site, the lack of guarding was noted, which indicated the general contractor as the responsible party for correction. Again, however, the paper did not translate into action. The victim, his foreman and the apprentices were not at the safety meeting. The general contractor was not aware of the form.

Don’t fall into this trap. Paper may fit the bill for compliance, but only actions will keep employees safe. To prevent the accident described above, the employer and employees need to know the guardrail requirements and to act on them. For the basics, review the checklist from the National Electrical Contractors Association’s (NECA) Safety Expert System Software. For more information on fall protection and regulations, consult OSHA’s Web site at www.osha.gov. For more information on the software, contact NECA at 301.657.3110.     EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or joconnor@intecweb.com.