Fall Protection Has Come a Long Way

Fall Protection Has Come a Long Way

02nd March 2021

If you’re in the construction industry and you use the internet, it’s a pretty sure thing that you’ve seen that iconic, historical photo of workers having their lunch break, sitting on a girder of the 30 Rockefeller Plaza during its construction phase. These guys are munching away on their sandwiches, hundreds of feet above the street below, and there’s not a safety product in sight! That photo was taken in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, when the health and safety of workers was barely considered.

The men in the photo were iron workers who helped build the 70-storey skyscraper and who happily posed for the now-famous photo which involved multiple takes. The image was intended to be used as advertising for the new building when the construction had been completed. There were a host of other photos taken on that day, including the workers playing football, waving American flags and even one in which workers pretended to be sleeping on the steel beam that had acted as their dining space!

In the early days of the 20th Century, there was no regulatory framework for fall protection in the workplace and this was not considered the concern of the employer. Workers were expected to take responsibility for their own health and safety. This meant that as well as doing their work on a busy construction site, workers also had to make sure they were safe and there were no systems in place to help with this.

Nowadays, if such a photo were being planned, there would be so many health and safety hoops to jump through, that the photo would be challenging to reproduce – which shows just how far we’ve come when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.

From around the 1920s onwards, the use of “body belts” became popular for those working at height. These were worn around the waist and were only effective if the worker fell horizontally. Whilst the introduction of safety lanyards increased efficacy, workers had to tie and retie their lines manually, which was time consuming.

Taking inspiration from equipment designed for paratroopers in World War II, safety harnesses were introduced in the 1940s and soon represented an effective alternative to body belts, the use of which became restricted in 1998.

As legislation governing health and safety at work became widespread, employers began taking responsibility for providing fall protection systems for their workers. Whilst new fabrics and designs ensured that harnesses were strong, durable and comfortable, reducing the risk of internal injury during a fall.

Fall arrest systems were created to help keep workers safe, with the introduction of fall protection posts that help to prevent injuries and save lives, leading to a decrease in deaths due to a fall from height.

Subsequent advances in rescue and recovery mean that working at height is now safer than it has ever been. However, with a fall from height still representing a major cause of injury in the workplace here in the UK (accounting for 20% of fatal accidents), there is no room for complacency. When working at height, it’s vital that a comprehensive fall arrest system is used.