Lee Marchessault

Electrical Safety Expert Witness

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Fall Protection by the Numbers

A simple and effective system for ensuring proper fall protection.

The development of an effective fall protection program has long been a tough issue to deal with. Many of the hazards that utility workers face often seem impossible to provide adequate protection for without introducing some other unsafe condition. And once systems are developed, getting workers to use them is another problem.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, fall protection systems have evolved to provide protection for most work-from-height scenarios and may be used in some combination to eliminate any fall hazard. It is important to keep it simple and remember the numbers six, 200 and 5,000. 

Pole climbing is one area that OSHA allows workers to free climb until they attach to the pole with a work-positioning belt upon arriving at the work location. All utilities have had workers “cut-out” and most have had injuries resulting from the falls. This is a known hazard, yet we still allow our workers to free climb. For years the options for fall protection from a pole position included a retractable system attached at the top of the pole or a large heavy pole grip device that would be attached to the pole at the working height to prevent falling. Both of these systems still required climbing the pole to set up the system and often created hazards to workers below, so they were somewhat limited to the practice-pole yards. Now there are a number of modifications of the pole strap commercially available, all of which eliminate the fall hazard. In addition, there are devices that may be installed to remove the hazards associated with climbing icy poles. 

A few other climbing hazards include transmission towers, wind towers and substation structures. For these types of hazards additional protection beyond the work-position belt should be provided. Protection from the ground requires the use of a vertical fall protection system that may include any number of attachment hooks, a rope or cable and a grip fastened to the front ring of a harness. A V-lanyard connected to the back ring of the harness also provides a good, simple fall protection system. Larger-sized double-locking snap hooks are now available to snap onto most structures. Often a combination of these devices is required to provide a system that will be the least intrusive to the work being performed. 

Other examples of fall hazards from working at elevated heights and walking or working while exposed to a lower level include confined/enclosed spaces, hydro-station dams, station transformers, building roofs and even mechanical work on aerial lift devices on bucket and digger/derrick trucks. Each may present a unique hazard and a plan must be developed in advance. The fall protection systems for these scenarios may require a horizontal lifeline, guardrails, or a retractable lanyard connected to a fixed structure or suspension (choker) sling.


To design an effective fall protection system it’s important to remember the basic rules: don’t allow a worker to fall more than six feet, make sure that the connection point can handle 5,000 pounds for each worker (separately connected), and a guardrail must withstand 200 pounds of side strain. 

A big challenge has always been working on station transformers. There are many fall protection schemes available, but setting up these systems often increases the risk of damaging bushings, resulting in sharps hazards, equipment damage and costly shut-down time. Considering the risks should be part of your plan. A few options for worker protection while working on a transformer or other elevated equipment include: setting up aerial lifts above the equipment to connect a retractable lanyard (with vehicle shut down and tagged out); setting up temporary guardrails; setting up an arm fastened to a pre-welded plate on the working surface; using a hook with an insulated stick to connect a vertical lifeline or retractable lanyard to the structure above the transformer (provided clearance is maintained from any energized parts); or require working from ladders only (OK for smaller equipment such as breakers or regulators). 

Emergency rescue systems should follow the same fall protection program. The only addition to this system may be the use of a backup or belay system. These systems can be very elaborate and technical. To design a system effectively, try to envision yourself in an emergency scenario with a co-worker or friend. Ask yourself, what would you honestly use to get that person safely down to the ground? The NFPA follows a Static System Safety Factor of 15:1. However, in the utility industry, realistically, a worker will grab a rope, tie up his buddy and lower him to the ground to get CPR going ASAP. Follow the minimum design fall protection criteria of 5,000 pounds, add a belay line for additional safety, and you can effectively design a rescue system. You may want to consult with a professional rescue expert to design the system best for you. Be sure to practice rescue training at least annually for transmission towers, substation structures, poles and wind towers. 

Fall hazards will always exist and often result in the most serious injuries in the utility industry. We can prevent these injuries by designing and implementing an effective fall protection program using a wide array of new systems now available. Let the employees help with the program development to get ultimate buy-in. Detail and train affected employees in the use of fall protection systems needed for each job as well as work procedures, including use and inspection of all equipment. Always consider the safety numbers of six, 200 and 5,000 to keep it as simple as possible.


The Expertise of Lee E. Marchessault

Lee E. Marchessault, with his extensive experience in electrical safety, plays a vital role in preventing electrical accidents. His specialties in electrical safety, electrocution, electrical arc flash burns, utility safety, power systems safety, utility fall protection, transmission, and distribution safety make him a sought-after expert in the field.

In conclusion, electrical safety is a paramount concern for anyone working with electricity, whether in the utility industry, power generation, or any other electrical field. By understanding the hazards, implementing safety measures, and seeking expert guidance, we can protect lives and property while ensuring a safer electrical environment for everyone.