Fear of Heights

Preventing truck drivers from falling off their rigs is a laudable goal. But deciding how best to keep drivers safe during the loading and unloading of a trailer-what measures are deemed “reasonably practicable” for employers and their workers-has become the subject of a heated debate between the federal government and Canada’s trucking industry.

The volume of that debate began to rise last month after Human Resources Development Canada published proposed amendments to the Canada Labour Code. The new rules would require employers to provide fall-protection devices for workers who have to climb higher than eight feet (2.4 metres) above the nearest safe place to stand-rules intended to cover trailers, loads, loading docks, and ladders. An employer could comply by eliminating the need for a worker to climb that high, or by training workers to safely climb and work at such a height. In each case, the employer would have to explain in writing to a government safety officer why it wasn’t “reasonably practicable” to install equipment to guard against falls.

The notice, which appeared in the Sept. 4 edition of the Canada Gazette Part I, would have a sweeping effect, governing all federally regulated trucking operations. HRDC estimates that implementation of the regulatory amendments would cost employers a collective $72.3 million over the next 20 years. But the benefits in terms of fewer injuries and less lost time at work would exceed $200 million.

Critics counter by saying that fatalities from slips and falls are rare, and that the government’s definition of “reasonably practicable” protection is vague. As for the costs, trucking industry lobbyists have pegged them at over $200 million.

Expect to hear more debate through Nov. 18, when the 75-day public comment period on the proposal expires. The department then has to review its plan and all the comments before proceeding with its final set of regulations. It would likely be well into next year before any mandate came into effect.


While the fall-protection issue dates back to the late 1980s, it gained impetus with a 1996 Ontario Court ruling that said, hardly surprisingly, that truck trailers, aircraft wings, and railway freight cars are “vehicles” and not structures. The decision terminated any legal Canada Labour Code requirement to provide fall-protection equipment for workers who have to climb onto tank, hopper, and flatbed trailers.

However, the federal occupational health and safety rules still required employers to protect the welfare of their employees, and that means providing a secure work site. So federal officials took up the current initiative to get fall-protection rules for transportation workers on the books. While the aviation and rail industries have mainly complied, it’s been a bumpy road with the trucking companies.

“We have always had some problems with the trucking industry; our file on this dates back to the late 1980s,” notes Richard Lafrance, who heads the compliance section of HRDC’s Occupational Health and Safety Branch, which includes the former labour department. Lafrance says federal officials began consulting with the trucking industry and unions after the court decision in Ontario. The former Canadian Trucking Association even set up a task force to work on the issue, Lafrance notes, but the effort stalled when the CTA was restructured into the Canadian Trucking Alliance. “That meant we were starting all over again.”

In early 1998, the CTA again began to research the issue in earnest. It estimated that the cost to the trucking industry of complying with fall-protection rules would be a minimum of $230 million, as well as a hefty ongoing cost. That’s a steep price considering there seem to be no hard numbers on how many workers are hurt or killed falling off trailers.

Some carriers already comply. The CTA told HRDC officials that about 50% of all tankers are already equipped with some form of fall-protection safety system, while about 25% of open-top vans have automatic tarping or other features designed to reduce the need for drivers to work high above ground.

The most obvious concern is what to do about flatbed trailers, which carry everything from lumber to heavy equipment-and by their very nature require that drivers climb up onto the trailer in order to secure or tarp the load. There are also issues surrounding van trailers: given that all trailers are to be cleared of ice and snow before taking to the road, in theory, these too would require fall-protection devices.


Among the truck fleets that have addressed the fall-protection issue on their own is DCT Chambers Trucking of Vernon, B.C., which hauls woodchip hoppers and flatdecks loaded with lumber throughout the province and into the United States. Bob Skinner, manager of lease operation development, says his company has responded to a provincial fall-protection mandate: in this case, the B.C. Workers Compensation Board said companies had to provide fall protection for workers. The WCB offered few details or guidelines for companies to follow in order to comply. That was frustrating, says Skinner, because there was no way to know in advance whether whatever safety system companies selected would be deemed acceptable by the Board. “They left it up to us to decide what we would do and then they would tell us if it was OK,” he says. On the other hand, it did give the truckers freedom in choosing what to do. “We had a hand in designing a user-friendly system instead of having something imposed arbitrarily on us,” Skinner says.

For the hoppers, fence systems have been installed at major loading terminals. The driver pulls the trailer under the terminal, and while he’s on the top of the hopper, the fence keeps him from falling to the ground.

For the flatdecks carrying lumber, the company has installed a cable which is suspended from an I-beam. The driver brings the loaded trailer under the beam and attaches himself to the cable after he climbs onto the trailer and before he spreads the tarp over the load of wood. If he slips, the cable keeps him from falling and enables him to regain his footing on the load.

The cost of fall-protection systems is significant, Skinner relates-the fence and harness system at Chambers’s yard in Vernon cost about $20,000. Shippers, too, are not necessarily exempt from the law: the lumber mills where the fleet’s trailers are loaded have installed protective measures. “If they don’t, the WCB would get after them,” Skinner says.

The company has had no significant problems getting the drivers to use the safety systems. But it also has supervisors who keep regular track of truck loadings to make sure everything is OK. While DCT Chambers and other B.C. carriers may seem to be ahead of the game when it comes to fall protection devices, Ottawa wants fall protection for drivers working more than eight feet off the ground. In B.C., the limit is 10 feet.

Skinner contends that the difference between the two systems would make it more difficult to comply with either one.

Lafrance explains that the eight-foot rule would only apply to products being moved out of province. Considering the amount of lumber shipped from B.C., for example, those 24 inches must seem like a mile to guys like Skinner.


For the Canadian Trucking Alliance, there’s an uneasy parallel between the situations in B.C. and Ottawa. The Gazette notice offers little indication of what kind of fall protection systems the federal government would accept. So federally regulated trucking companies will have to guess at what safety inspectors might deem appropriate. If they guess wrong, they’re out of pocket.

That’s troublesome, says CTA spokesman Massimo Bergamini.

“We have asked the department to describe what is acceptable; we have asked them to develop technical guidelines for the industry,” he says. “We have offered to work with them on this. We proposed to bring manufacturers and carriers to work with them.”

So far, the department has rejected the industry’s overtures, Bergamini says. He acknowledges that the issue had been under discussion for many years, but says the industry’s offer to work with the department on fall-protection measures wasn’t meant to stall the issue.

In fact, he notes, working with the industry could have expedited the process by coming up with workable systems that companies could begin to use.

“It’s not like none of our members have taken any measures,” Bergamini says. “It’s in our interest to have a safe workplace; we’re prepared to do what’s necessary.”

Lafrance replies that trucking companies would be given time to prepare for the new requirements. Once the regulation is in place, the industry isn’t going to be besieged by safety inspectors. Checking for fall protection would become one of the regular duties of workplace safety inspectors. Indeed, trucking companies would only have to show enforcement officials that whatever system they deploy is safe and effective. The department doesn’t have the expertise the industry has on this issue, Lafrance concedes. HRDC simply wants to achieve a safer working environment for the drivers.

Just the same, the CTA remains concerned that carriers will end up spending a lot of money on systems the department will reject.

The CTA is also worried that fall protection could quickly become the same patchwork quilt of regulations as the supposed National Safety Code. It wonders what the department will do to enforce the regulations on trailers from the United States, or at shippers’ facilities. As it now stands, there are shippers who tell drivers to leave their premises before tying down a load so they aren’t liable for any accidents on their property.

It’s clear that the industry has to respond quickly and decisively to the HRDC notice, while showing that it’s on-side with initiatives to ensure the safety of the public and its employees. “You have to ask how the department wants this implemented,” says Mike Mitchell of Liversidge & Associates, a Toronto management consulting firm that specializes in WCB issues. “Ask how you’re supposed to communicate this to your employees.”

The response to the Gazette notice might also be the time to approach the department with a proposal to establish a joint implementation committee that is to work to set deadlines.

Fall protection presents an interesting challenge for the industry, but one that it could use to good advantage in establishing a better rapport with the federal government.

The rail and airline industries have played a major role in developing the safety regulations governing their industries; there’s no reason that trucking, while a more diverse group, couldn’t gain the same status.



Highlights of HRDC’s proposed amendments to the Canada Labour Code, published Sept. 4 in the Canada Gazette Part I:

o An employer must provide fall protection for any person who works:

a) from an unguarded structure or on a vehicle, at a height of more than 2.4 metres above the nearest permanent safe level or above any moving parts of machinery or any other surface or thing that could cause injury to an employee on contact;

b) from a temporary structure at a height of more than 6.0 metres above a permanent safe level; or

c) from a ladder at a height of more than 2.4 metres above the nearest permanent safe level where, because of the nature of the work, the person cannot use one hand to hold onto the ladder.

o The complete text is available on the Internet at www.canada.gc.ca/gazette/gazette_e.html.

o Submit written comments about the proposed rule to: Richard Lafrance, Labour Branch, Human Resources Development Canada, Ottawa, ON K1A 0J2. Comments must cite the Canada Gazette Part I, and the date of publication of the notice (Sept. 4, 1999). Deadline: Nov. 18, 1999.

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