Baker & O'Brien, Inc.

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Worker Fall Incident: Evaluating the Adequacy of Protection Systems and Practices

Jury Trial, United States

November 1, 2018

Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in construction, accounting for about one-third of all fatalities in the industry.  To ensure safe working conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets forth regulations regarding fall prevention, and operators and contractors have developed specific work practices to protect against falls.  Protection is required from an unprotected side or leading edge of elevated work surfaces such as: platforms, stairways, ladders, roofs, pipe-racks, and tank roofs. 

The required fall protection can vary depending on the unique hazards and conditions associated with each of these work surfaces, as well as the frequency of the activities performed on them.  It is, therefore, essential that employers evaluate each work activity to select the appropriate protective equipment and protective barriers to ensure worker safety.  Additionally, OSHA fall protection requirements have evolved over the years; employers must remain current with regulatory requirements and ensure that the appropriate and current fall protection requirements are provided.  The types of fall protection include guardrails, safety nets, horizontal life-lines, personal fall-arrest systems, or a combination of these methods.

A worker fell from the top of a storage tank while performing planned maintenance activities on a pressure safety valve (PSV). The work was part of a preventative maintenance program, which was typically performed on a three to five year cycle.  Baker & O’Brien was retained to investigate the following:  (1) adequacy of the fall protection systems and the training in the use of the same; (2) communication of hazards from the employer; (3) roles and responsibilities of those involved performing the maintenance work; and (4) the specific cause(s) of the incident.

We evaluated if the tank top was considered an elevated platform, whether handrails were required or practical, and the appropriateness of the employer-provided personal fall-arrests systems. We also looked at the possible anchorage locations, access to the tank top, communication of fall-related risks, and the training and frequency in personal fall protection equipment. We presented our findings and opinions in an expert report and delivered deposition and court room testimony.