Fall Protection #4


Though it’s obvious that anyone who works high above the ground runs the risk of falling, a surprising number of workers seem to think it can’t happen to them. This is a particular problem in construction, where several workers die each day from falls and many more are injured. 

Construction is different from other industries. People aren’t always at the same worksite. The workers at a specific site may change from day to day, and each site may have workers and equipment from more than one company. In addition, construction work often takes place outdoors, where weather can add to the hazards. 

Because of these factors, OSHA has separate standards that apply to construction work, including a 1994 fall protection standard. The agency believes that its procedures can prevent many falls and keep many more from ending in injury or death. 

Though the standard applies only to construction, many of its guidelines are useful for anyone who may sometimes work on heights. We’ll review the OSHA rule today and discuss the practices and equipment that can prevent falls. 

OSHA Regulations

OSHA used input from many employers and employee groups to develop its construction fall protection standard (29 CFR 1926.500-503). They tried to identify work situations with a risk of falling, excluding some that are covered by other regulations—work on scaffolds, certain cranes and derricks, steel erection, tunneling, electric transmission line and equipment construction, stairways and ladders. 

The new standard covers all other construction activities six feet or more above the ground or a lower level. We’ll discuss the specific situations OSHA identified in a moment. The regulation also covers practices designed to protect workers from being hit by falling objects. 

Like other new OSHA standards, this one is performance-oriented. That means employers play a role both in identifying risks and the best ways to protect workers from them. All employers must, of course, do everything possible to prevent these accidents. 

OSHA says employers must “determine if the walking/working surfaces on which the employees are to work have the strength and structural integrity to support employees safely.” Not surprisingly, it permits employees only on surfaces that have those qualities. In addition, employers have to provide and install the fall protection systems the standard requires. Employers also have to train any employee who might be exposed to fall hazards. The training helps employees learn to understand and recognize an area’s fall hazards, as well as how to maintain, inspect, and use the fall protection systems. Training must also cover how to handle and store the fall protection equipment and any limits on its effectiveness. Employers must certify in writing that workers have completed this training. They will retrain employees if workplace hazards or fall protection systems change or an employee doesn’t seem to understand the hazards and protections. 

Identifying Hazards

The OSHA standard identifies situations with fall hazards as those where employees work six feet or more above the ground or a lower level on: 

  • Walking and working surfaces, including ramps and runways 
  • Unprotected leading edges of floors, roofs, floor formworks, and other surfaces not actively and continuously under construction 
  • Faces of formwork or reinforcing steel 
  • Hoist areas 
  • Areas above holes, including skylights 
  • Edges of excavations 
  • Roofs of various pitches 
  • Precast concrete structural members that are being put up 
  • Areas where overhand bricklaying and related work are performed 
  • Residential construction 
  • Wall openings 
  • Areas above equipment, such as machinery, electrical equipment, degreasing units, or anything that could create a hazard if you fall on or in it. 

Protection Against Hazards

To be safe, you have to know more than which situations present fall hazards. You also have to know what protection to use to prevent falls. In most cases, the standard expects employers to provide one or more of these basic protections: guardrail, safety net, and/or personal fall arrest systems. 

In certain circumstances, employers may also use: 

  • Warning line systems 
  • Controlled access zones 
  • Safety monitoring systems 
  • Covers 
  • Fall protection plan. 
  • Protection from Falling Objects

As I mentioned earlier, the standard covers not just falls but protection from falling objects. The rules cover both systems and policies that prevent objects from falling and protections to keep employees in the path of falling objects from harm. 

The key employee protection is a simple requirement: If you’re working in an area in which objects might fall, you must wear a hard hat. As added protection, employers may use barricades and bans on entry to keep employees out of an area into which objects might fall. You can only use barricades in combination with policies and procedures designed to keep objects above from accidentally falling over the edge. Instead of or in addition to that combination, employers may prevent injuries from falling objects in one of two ways. 

One option is to use toeboards, screens, or guardrail system on the upper level working area. The toeboards, at least 3 1/2 inches high, must be able to withstand a 50 pound force. If you keep materials higher than the toeboard on the upper level, you have to place a screen or panel from the top of the toeboard to the guardrail. 

The other choice is to install a canopy on the aboveground work area. The canopy has to be collapse-proof and strong enough that falling objects can’t penetrate it. In addition, you must keep materials on that work level where they won’t accidentally go over the edge. 

In addition to all this, OSHA says any materials piled or stacked near a roof edge have to be stable and self-supporting. You can’t store masonry and mortar equipment closer than four feet to the working edge and have to remove any related scrap regularly. You also can’t keep roofing materials closer than six feet to the edge unless there are guardrails. That’s how OSHA expects us to prevent injuries from falling objects. Now let’s look at how the safety regulation works to keep us from falling. 

As I mentioned, fall protection usually involves guardrail, safety net, and/or personal fall arrest systems. OSHA requires one or more of these systems except in certain limited situations that I’ll describe shortly. First, let’s look at the three basic protections. 

  1. Guardrails are a barrier between you and an open upper level edge. OSHA is very specific about guardrails’ design and construction. They’re generally about 42 inches high. If there’s no wall 21 inches or higher, you have to have mid-rails, screens, or something similar between the guardrail’s top and bottom to prevent a fall. Guardrails must be made of materials strong enough to stand up against a force of at least 200 pounds. They can’t be made of materials that could puncture the skin or snag your clothes. You can’t use steel or plastic bands for top or middle rails. 
  2. Safety net systems are designed to catch you if you do fall. They are made with strong border ropes and mesh openings no more than 36 square inches or 6 inches on any side, and placed 30 feet or less under the walking or working surface. Of course, nets have to be strong enough to save a falling person. If they’re not certified, employers test them by dropping a 400-pound bag of sand about 30 inches in diameter from the highest walking/working surface. As added protection, OSHA requires us to inspect the nets at least weekly for wear, damage, and deterioration. Obviously, if they’re no good, they’re replaced. The agency also says to remove any material or scrap that falls into a net as quickly as possible. 
  3. Personal fall arrest systems are a very valuable form of protection when you work aboveground. You wear a body belt or harness connected to a fixed anchor by a lanyard, lifeline, or deceleration device that can hold your weight so you don’t crash to the ground. They’re similar to what bungee jumpers use, but very carefully designed to limit the amount of free fall and to protect you from injury. 
  4. Harness straps attach in the center of your back near your shoulders or over your head; they distribute the fall arrest forces around the mid-body. A body belt goes around the waist, but is prohibited for use after January 1, 1998. If you start to fall, a personal fall arrest system goes into action by the time you’ve fallen six feet and before contact with any lower level. Once it comes into play, it must bring the falling person to a complete stop after falling no more than 3 1/2 feet. 

The only purpose of a personal fall arrest system is to keep you from falling. Don’t use one to hoist materials. You must also inspect the equipment before each use to make sure there’s no damage or deterioration. If you spot any problems, you turn the system in and get a new one. Any equipment is only as good as its parts. With personal fall arrest systems, the connectors that link the parts together are especially vital. The regulation details what materials meet its standards and how much they have to be able to hold without breaking. 

One common type of connector is a snaphook. The best ones are self-locking and self-closing so they won’t open under moderate pressure unless someone releases them. Non-locking snaphooks can’t be used after January 1, 1998. A good system also has an anchor that won’t budge or break. An anchor has to be able to support at least 5,000 pounds per employee attached to it. You can’t anchor people to a guardrail, hoist, or anything used to support or suspend a platform. If you do fall when wearing one of these apparatuses, you also have to be able to rescue yourself or be rescued by others immediately. 

People who work on walls or other elevated vertical surfaces get special fall arrest systems known as positioning devices. They allow you to lean and have both hands free to perform your job. These devices must support at least twice the potential load of an employee’s fall and assure that you can’t fall more than two feet before they kick in. They need especially tough connectors. 

Those are the three fall protection systems OSHA prefers. But, as I mentioned earlier, the agency permits other forms of protection in certain situations. 

Warning line systems are rope, wire, or chain barriers that alert employees to an unprotected roof side or edge. Alone, they’re not enough protection. We must use them with guardrail, safety net, and/or personal fall arrest systems or with a safety monitoring system. 

Warning lines are at least six feet from the roof edge and go around all sides of the roof work area. Needless to say, no one can work between the roof edge and warning line unless they’re roofing in that area. Controlled access zones are areas where certain work like overhand bricklaying can be performed without guardrail, safety net, or personal fall arrest systems. As the name indicates, these areas are off limits to all but specially authorized people. Lines of rope, wire, tape, etc. set off these zones. The lines are at least six feet from the unprotected edge—10 feet for overhand bricklaying. They run the full length of that edge, and connect to a guardrail system or wall on each end. Safety monitoring systems are another alternative form of fall protection OSHA permits in certain situations. With safety monitoring, you place a trained person with the workers on the elevated walking/working surface. This person’s job is to look for fall hazards and warn employees when they’re approaching danger. The monitor has to be in a spot where his or her spoken warning can be heard. And when you hear that warning you’d better follow orders! 

We can use safety monitoring along with a warning line system on low-slope roofs or alone on roofs less than 50 feet wide. Employers may also use it in situations where they demonstrate that they can’t use guardrails, safety nets, and personal fall arrest systems or that those systems would create a greater hazard than they prevent. 

Covers can keep people from falling through holes in floors, roofs, etc. The covers are color-coded or marked HOLE or COVER so you know there’s a hazard. They have to be secured so they won’t move accidentally and able to support at least twice the weight of employees, equipment, and materials that could be on them at once. 

Fall Protection Plans

I indicated that OSHA recognizes that occasionally fall protection systems can’t be used or may create a greater hazard. When employers can prove that’s the case on work that involves leading edges, precast concrete erection, or residential construction, there’s an option. 

In those situations, OSHA allows employers to develop a fall protection plan for that site. The employer must assign a person with knowledge of fall hazards to create the plan, keep it up to date, and supervise its execution. A copy must be kept at the job site. 

The plan explains why guardrail, safety net, or personal fall arrest systems can’t be used. Then it states what the employer will do to reduce or eliminate the fall hazard. The plan must also state clearly that the site it covers is a controlled access zone and organize the site accordingly. The plan lists each employee permitted to work in the zone. No one else is admitted. Employers must also use safety monitoring if no other fall protection system is in place at the site. 

As added protection, OSHA requires employers to investigate any falls that do occur at these sites—even near misses. After the investigation, the employer has to make any changes needed to prevent similar incidents. 

Safety Procedures

It’s not easy to remember all these fall hazards and protection systems. Fortunately, you don’t have to decide what to use and when. OSHA makes that an employer responsibility. It’s your responsibility to take these hazards seriously and to use any protections provided properly. Otherwise, you put yourself or others at risk. 

One important employee responsibility is to inspect the personal fall arrest system before you use it. Turn in anything that has: 

  • Cuts, tears, or abrasions 
  • Undue stretching 
  • Mold 
  • Deterioration 
  • Distorted hooks or faulty hook springs 
  • Nonfunctioning parts 
  • Loose or damaged mountings 
  • Tongues that don’t fit the shoulder of buckles 
  • Contact with fire, acid, or other corrosives 
  • Alterations or additions that limit its effectiveness. 

For a personal fall arrest system to protect you, you need a proper and secure anchorage. Sometimes anchorages are designed into a structure. Then window washers and others can use them later. Other options include a steel member or I-beam; steel eye-bolts, guardrails or railings designed for anchor use; and certain masonry or wood pieces. Someone with technical knowledge will determine if possible anchors are strong and secure enough for the task. 

You want to be just as sure that the anchor connections are strong. If you use a knot to tie-off, it can reduce the strength of the lifeline or lanyard by 50 percent or more—no matter how strong the anchor it’s tied to. To offset that loss, we use a stronger lanyard or lifeline to compensate. 

Try not to tie-off over a rough or sharp edge, which can also weaken the line. If you tie off to an “H” or “I” beam, you have to use lanyards made of webbing or lifelines with wire cores because they’re stronger and less likely to be damaged by the edge. Some types of knots also limit the system’s strength and fall protection ability. Never use a one-and-one sliding hitch knot, and try to avoid using any hitch knot. 

Other Fall Prevention Techniques

We’ve talked about how OSHA-required systems and equipment can prevent construction falls—and deaths and injuries. But as you know, equipment and procedures are never quite enough. You need a cautious, safety-oriented attitude and must take precautions to reduce the chance that you’ll fall. 

Here are some safety procedures that will help you prevent falls on any level—but especially from heights: 

  • Wear sturdy shoes with nonskid soles. Be sure the shoes have either short laces or buckles or snaps. 
  • Avoid wearing long, loose pants you could trip over. 
  • Walk slowly and watch where you’re going—don’t run. 
  • Clean up all spills promptly. 
  • Take special care on wet or icy surfaces. 
  • Don’t carry a stack of materials you can’t see over. 
  • Carry only the tools and materials you need to upper levels. 
  • Keep all materials as far away from the edge as possible. 
  • Dispose of trash regularly and properly. 
  • Stay away from edges, even if they’re guarded, unless you’re performing a specific task there. 
  • Obey verbal warnings, signs, and barriers. Don’t enter a controlled access zone without authorization. 


No one wants to end up like Humpty Dumpty and take a big and fatal fall. OSHA’s construction fall protection standard was created to make that a lot less likely. By requiring protection when you’re at least six feet up, OSHA believes it can really cut the number of falls and related deaths and injuries. The systems, plus the required training programs, are an effort to get all involved parties on the same safety wavelength. The OSHA standard we’ve been discussing today has a lot of details. It is very specific about when fall protection is required and what equipment is tough enough to do the job. 

The standard’s careful efforts to prevent falls emphasizes how serious these accidents are. It demonstrates that we can and should prevent falls whenever any job—not just construction—involves work aboveground. 

* Don’t Drop In On Your Fellow Workers *