Falls are a dangerous work hazard, especially in construction. In fact, according to the CDC, in 2017 falls accounted for 366 out of 971 total construction fatalities! Fall protection for your workers is the responsibility of the employers. By understanding how falls occur, planning for your worker safety, as well as providing proper safety gear and training, you can take an active role in protecting your employees.
What is an elevated fall?
In general, a fall is defined as a slip or trip causing your body to collapse due to a quick shift in your center of gravity. There are two types of falls: same-level and elevated. Same-level falls occur when you trip and fall to the floor or against a wall but you don’t fall from one level to another. Elevated falls, however, are a fall from above or below the floor from an elevated place like a ladder, building rooftop, through a skylight, or off a scaffold.
This article will focus on preventing elevated falls in construction and will not go in-depth about single-level slips, trips, and falls.
Fall Prevention in Construction
Since falls and elevated falls are major hazards in construction, their rules on fall safety and protection are well-defined. Below is a general guide to the most frequently cited OSHA regulations for construction fall prevention.
Most Frequently Cited Fall Protection OSHA Standards
1926.501(b)(13) Fall Protection—Residential Construction
When employees are working in a residential construction environment higher than 6 feet above the ground or a lower level, they need to be protected by either a guardrail, safety net, or personal fall arrest system.
1926.501(b)(1) Fall Protection—Unprotected sides and edges
If an edge or side of a walking or working surface leads to a fall that is more than 6 feet above the ground or a lower level, you’ll need to prevent falling by using guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems.
1926.501 (b)(10) Fall Protection—Roofing work on low-slope roofs
Each employee on the roof needs fall protection if the ground or lower level is at least 6 feet down from the roof’s edge. Depending on the job’s needs, you can choose from a guardrail, safety net, personal fall arrest system. Also permitted are combinations of warning line systems and guardrails, safety nets, personal fall arrest systems, or safety monitoring systems.
1926.501 (b)(11) Fall Protection—Steep Roof
Since a steep roof is more treacherous to work on, unprotected sides should be protected with a guardrail that features toeboards, plus a safety net or personal fall arrest system.
1926.501 (b)(4)(i) Fall Protection—Skylights
From 2011-2016, over 160 workers died after falling through a skylight or a hole in a roof. Because of this, workers should be protected by a personal fall arrest system and when possible, a cover or guardrail should be installed on the skylight.
Just like with unprotected roofs and other workspace edges, if scaffolding is more than six feet above the ground, guardrails should be installed. If an employee is using a float scaffold, needle beam scaffold, or ladder jack scaffold, they should also be protected by a personal fall arrest system. This is also true if they are using a single-point or two-point adjustable suspension scaffold.
Steel erection in construction often perches workers in precarious positions as they erect tall and narrow structures at various heights. This makes typical fall protection techniques impractical or impossible, as anchor points can be limited. In these scenarios, fall protection is required for unprotected edges more than 15 feet above a lower level.
Controlled decking zones (CDZ) are sometimes used instead of fall protection. These areas must be no more than 90 feet wide and deep from a leading edge and feature both clear boundaries and safety deck attachments. Within the CDZ, work can be performed without guardrails, fall restraints, or other safety systems but access to the area must be strictly controlled.
Stairs & Ladders
Fixed and portable ladders both must be well-constructed and frequently inspected for safety. Fixed ladders that are longer than 20 feet must feature either a fall protection system like a self-retracting lifeline, cage, or ladder safety device or they are required to feature a landing every 30 feet.
Stairs are a common site for accidental slips and falls, so whether they are temporary or not, they must feature handrails. If the stairs are temporary, they must be properly maintained and dismantled at the end of construction work.
In order for your workers to keep safety in mind and practice good fall prevention techniques, they need proper training. Employers need to train their workers to set up and utilize fall protection equipment safely and effectively, as well as how to recognize fall hazards and situations where fall protection would be required.
Fall Protection Systems
In each of the commonly cited OSHA standards and requirements, fall protection systems were heavily mentioned. These systems are crucial for protecting employees from dangerous and sometimes fatal falls when working from heights.
Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS)
Personal fall arrest utilizes a fall protection harness, anchor, and connector to catch an employee in the event of a fall and keep the forces of deceleration at a safe level. These systems are secured to a sturdy structure through the anchor, with the connectors commonly consisting of shock-absorbing lanyards or self-retracting lifelines attached to a body harness that distributes the fall forces throughout the body.
Fall Restraint Systems
These systems tend to be preferred by workers yet are barely mentioned in OSHA fall protection regulations. Fall restraint systems also often use a harness and connector setup, however, these systems are meant to entirely prevent a fall instead of simply catching a worker if they slip over an edge. A fall restraint system features a lead that simply does not extend far enough for a worker to be able to fall over an edge, allowing them to work safely without fear of drops.
Safety Net Systems
Safety net systems are a passive form of fall protection often installed to prevent falls by covering a potential hazard as a barrier or in a setup that will catch a worker in the event of a fall to protect them from hitting lower surfaces.
Safety nets can also be used to catch debris from construction, like bricks, wood, nails, or tools that could injure workers or bystanders below a construction site.
Guardrails can be either temporary or permanent and are highly regulated by OSHA both in construction and for general workplace safety. Guardrails are excellent forms of fall protection because they give a visual cue that a dangerous drop is over the edge they are featured on; they provide a physical barrier between people and the fall hazard; and they can act as fall protection in areas where a cover or wall are not feasible.
While they appear similar, guardrails should not be confused for handrails. Their difference is distinct. Guardrails are used for fall protection, while handrails are used for individuals to support themselves while navigating a stairway or surface.
To protect workers and other individuals from fall hazards, a guardrail must be strongly built with posts positioned evenly to avoid people from falling through the gaps. They must also be tall enough to avoid topples over the top and extend far enough to cover the entire edge. Finally, guardrails can be made from metal or wood, but they should be smooth and not splinter or cut skin or cause clothing snags.
How to Protect Your Workers from Elevated Falls
Elevated falls are a leading cause of death for construction employees. These deaths are almost always preventable with proper planning, equipment, and training.
Plan for safety
Before elevated work ever begins, it is the responsibility of the employer to plan for how it will be completed safely. This process should begin as early as the estimation phase, where safety equipment and tools should be considered and budgeted into the construction estimate.
Provide the right equipment
It is the employers’ responsibility to provide the right fall protection and other personal protection equipment to employees so that they can conduct their work safely. Not only must this equipment be provided, but it also must be regularly inspected for fit and quality.
Train your workers
Fall arrest systems and other protective gear are only effective if your workers understand when, how, and why to use them. Robust and frequent training in fall protection for various scenarios that your workers may encounter can help keep them safe and able to spot hazards competently while performing their duties.
Fall protection is an important part of construction site safety. Elevated falls are almost always preventable, so it’s crucial we put a spotlight on this safety topic to ensure workers can perform their duties without unnecessary risks.
Fall Protection Awareness
Consider getting involved with OSHA’s annual National Safety Stand-Down by hosting events to talk to your employees about fall hazards and reinforce safety policies. This event is also a great opportunity to allow your employees to speak directly to company management about their safety concerns in an open and constructive dialog.
If you’re interested in material for a National Safety Stand-Down refresher event or need resources to properly train your employees on the importance of fall hazard safety, NSC can help. We offer several different ways to train your employees on fall hazards and fall protection. Our training kits include everything you need to hold a successful training session, including video lessons, lecture presentations, and printable handouts.