It's the type of top-ten list no one wants to be on, but there it is in black and white. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) list of most frequently cited workplace violations, lack of — or inadequate — fall protection ranked third in 2006 and second in 2007. Every American worker —from the computer jockey who spends his day in a cubicle to the steelworker perched on an exposed beam 40 stories above the ground — wants, and is entitled to, appropriate protection from workplace hazards.

That's where OSHA enters the picture. Armed with an exhaustive list of regulations and standards, this federal agency monitors workplace safety and health and encourages all businesses to establish such programs.

When considering fall protection for workers who spend the bulk of their days on top of railcars and trucks during the loading or unloading process, OSHA's requirements leave room for interpretation. In general, OSHA's rule is, "A plant site must maintain a 'safe' work environment."

Which puts many plant operators in the uncomfortable position of having to decide to what extent they need to go to make their facilities "safe" for their workers, knowing that any unfortunate consequences of this decision can be hazardous to their business as well as costly in terms of human life.

Midwest PMS, Firestone, Colorado, is a manufacturer of liquid feed supplements for cattle and other livestock. It owns and operates 11 manufacturing plants spread over five states and owns 400 railcars.

On any given day, as many as five employees will spend their shift walking the tops of the 10 to 15 railcars that come in to be unloaded. In addition, each plant employs upwards of 15 truck drivers who deliver products that need to be transferred.

In 2004, the company began a comprehensive program to upgrade the fall protection at all of its sites, first for its truck docks and, since 2006, at all of its railcar areas. "Fall protection is always among the most frequently cited OSHA violations and our insurance company has told us that since we've been proactive in fall protection, they've rewarded us with a premium reduction," Scott Laird, safety director for Midwest PMS, says. "We didn't have a catastrophic injury that made us do this. It was just the right thing to do."

The decision to upgrade its fall protection was an easy one for Midwest PMS. The tougher question was, which type of fall protection would best fit its needs?

After considering several options, Laird and Midwest PMS decided to outfit its rail sidings with the permacable horizontal lifeline system, which is designed for access where fall hazards exist and worker mobility is needed. Permacable is manufactured by Sellstrom/RTC, Palatine, Illinois, but is marketed and installed on-site by SafeRack LLC, of Sumter, South Carolina.

A permanent solution

Permacable is actually a synthetic, lightweight cable that is strung between L- or T-shaped supports that can be spaced as much as 200 feet apart. It can support as many as four workers at a time. Its pass-through device allows workers to walk past intermediate supports without having to disconnect their lifeline. Its lighter weight reduces the amount of sag in the cable. The cable has a tensile strength of 16,000 pounds and is weather- chemical- and corrosion-resistant. Another safety feature: the cable is a bright orange, but when it begins to show wear, it turns a bright red, letting the operator know a replacement may be in order.

"It's a pretty simple process and it's easy to install," Laird says. "SafeRack also has knowledge of the OSHA standards and what is expected of us in regards to them."

"Midwest PMS is the perfect type of company we like to work for," Rob Honeycutt, co-founder of SafeRack LLC, says. "Scott and his team are very conscientious and concerned about the safety of their workers. They are also willing to work hand-in-hand with us on the design of their fall-protection systems. The lack of slip-and-fall incidents at Midwest PMS plants is a testament to their ongoing dedication to worker safety."