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Don’t Fall for Unsafe Practices: Heights in HVAC
DISCLAIMER: HVAC School is NOT an official OSHA safety training resource! Although we provide safety tips in good faith, our website is not a substitute for safety training from an authorized OSHA training source.
Many things may deter people from working in the HVAC industry. Perhaps surprisingly, exposure to heights could be the deal-breaker. (Not the long hours and hard labor?!)
Their worries are not unfounded, though. According to ACHR News, falling from heights is one of the top five safety hazards in the HVAC industry.
If you’re reading this and already work in the industry, there’s a good chance that you tolerate heights pretty well. Maybe you even like them. However, confidence around heights is not a reason to forgo safety measures. Whether you’re standing on the second rung of an A-frame ladder or near the top of an extension ladder, you face potential fall hazards that may result in severe injury or death.
This article will cover the various types of heights we may experience, safe practices at those heights, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect ourselves from falls.
Far and away, the most common heights we’ll encounter are ladders. That’s because ladders are quite versatile; you can use them to reach wall-mounted ductless systems near ceilings or rooftops of two-story buildings.
There are two main types of ladders we use: A-frame ladders and extension ladders.
A-frame ladders, as their name suggests, open up and form an A shape. These ladders have four feet that all touch the ground, and the ladders can typically range from 6 feet to 18 feet in height. For your safety, only use A-frame ladders when they are fully open. The ladders in the picture below are all A-frame ladders.
OSHA requires that workers do not stand on the top cap or top step of an A-frame step ladder. There is an exception for step stools that are under 32″ tall and designed for that purpose.
Extension ladders are longer and typically slimmer than A-frame ladders. They can extend to help you reach higher places, and they only have two feet on the ground; these ladders are meant to lean against a building surface. These ladders also come in various sizes, typically ranging from a minimum length of 12 feet to at least 40 feet. The picture below shows a person pressure-washing a log home using an extension ladder.
Extension ladders should only be used on flat surfaces, and they will create a right triangle between the ground (bottom), leaning surface (side), and the ladder itself (hypotenuse). The safest thing to do is use the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2) to determine the distance between the leaning surface and the ladder’s bottom. For example, if you have a ladder that you want to lean against a 12-foot wall, then the ladder must extend 13 feet, and you must place the ladder’s bottom 5 feet away from the wall for maximum stability.
Regardless of the type of ladder you use, it is best to use ones made of fiberglass in our trade. Wood and fiberglass are non-conductive materials, and they will protect you from electric shock. A surprisingly high number of simple electrical shocks at job sites turn deadly because they occur on ladders or at significant heights. A relatively small shock can cause a person to recoil and lose their balance, leading to a fatal fall.
When climbing a ladder, make sure that you have at least three points of contact with the ladder at all times (two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot). You reduce your fall risk significantly if you keep at least three of your limbs in contact with the ladder as you climb or descend.
Although we don’t work on scaffolding nearly as often as we work on ladders, many of us will still encounter it and should know how to be safe on scaffolding.
Thankfully, OSHA has several safety protocols in place to hold employers accountable for their employees’ safety. Even though this information may not seem important for technicians and other HVAC workers, we believe workers must be armed with the knowledge of safety standards. That way, they can protect themselves, recognize unsafe conditions, and advocate for their safety.
The main protocols deal with the scaffolding’s design and ability to bear weight. According to OSHA standards, a scaffold should be able to hold four times its maximum intended load (e.g., its own load plus four times its weight) without settling or displacing itself. Of course, some responsibility falls to the technicians to store unneeded tools and other materials off of the scaffolding. That way, you can keep all unnecessary weight off. Workers should also avoid climbing on cross bracing or scaffold bucks, though that may seem like a common-sense piece of advice.
Scaffolds must have three forms of railing: guardrails, mid rails, and toeboards. Of those, guardrails and toeboards are required on all structures 10 feet or higher than the ground floor. The toeboard runs along the bottom of a railing edge. Midrails run parallel to the guardrail top and are situated between the guardrail and the floor for extra protection.
The term “guardrail” refers to the entire rail. However, it’s worth noting that Americans often use the term colloquially to refer to metal barriers along roadways. We’re talking about rails that look similar to these:
We are NOT referring to rails that look like these:
Other scaffolding concerns primarily deal with inspection and maintenance. As always, if a brace, bracket, or other accessory appears to be broken or in poor shape, let the appropriate person know about it. OSHA requires a competent person to inspect the scaffold condition before anyone uses it. Still, you can only be truly safe if you know which warning signs to look out for and communicate those to the proper authority.
What equipment can I use to protect myself from a fall?
Even though you could take all of these safety tips to heart, you could still end up in a freak accident that causes you to fall from a high place. Surely, there has to be a way to keep you from falling and injuring yourself.
Luckily, there is some personal protective equipment that protects you from falls! OSHA even requires employees to wear these under certain circumstances, so you won’t need to rely on your balance alone.
Apart from guardrails, there is another conventional fall protection system called a personal fall arrest system. That is an umbrella term for the PPE that a person can wear to protect themselves from falling. Body belts and harnesses fall under this umbrella, though those parts must also contain connectors and an anchorage. The anchorage must be secure and strong enough to bear your weight in the case of a fall.
Suppose scaffolding rails, ladders, or personal fall arrest systems are impractical. What will protect you then? Well, OSHA has a standard that helps you; OSHA requires employers to use safety net systems if workers perform tasks over roadways (which is highly unlikely for our line of work) or 25 feet above the nearest surface.
The best piece of safety advice we can give is to be attentive and know your protections! Heights are not something you want to mess around with, especially if you’re working on equipment with electrical components or moving parts. Mind your space at all times, and make sure you wear a body harness or belt with a secure connection whenever the situation calls for it.
If you would like to have access to more official information on fall protection, here is a link to OSHA’s fall protection training and additional resources page on their website.