OSHA Guidelines for Fall Protection
Falls are one of the biggest causes of injuries and deaths in the workplace, especially in certain industries such as construction, the trades, mining, and electrical utility repair. A fall from any distance, even a short one, can result in long-term debilitating or fatal injuries. Employers are responsible for assessing the risk in their workplaces and implementing measures to protect workers from falls.
OSHA provides guidelines for fall protection in general industry, which applies to every workplace. Workers may be operating from elevated work stations, walking along overhead platforms, or working around holes in the floors and walls. No matter the situation, employers are required to prevent their employees from being injured due to falls by:
- Providing working conditions that are free from known dangers.
- Keeping work areas clean and sanitary so workers can see where they are going and won’t suffer from trips that may lead to a serious fall.
- Guarding any hole in the floor by erecting a railing around it and providing a floor hole cover.
- Erecting a toe board and guardrail around any floor, platform, or runway that is open-sided and 4 feet or higher off the ground (or 4 feet from the next level).
- Providing fall protection equipment such as a safety harness, personal fall arrest system, safety nets, and railings.
A fall protection program will be unique to each workplace; there is no “one size fits all” approach. Careful considerations should be taken so that protections can be tailored to the specific tasks and hazards of your worksite. Review your situation beforehand and include employees in your process of determining fall protection, so they understand what equipment to use and how exactly it will prevent them from suffering injuries.
Standards for Construction
OSHA additionally provides specific fall protection standards for the construction industry (found in 29 CFR 1926), as this is the industry that most commonly involves tasks conducted at an unsafe height. These standards cover a variety of topics and types of falls, environments, and tasks that may put workers at risk. OSHA’s guidelines incorporate:
- Scaffolding (including requirements applicable to specific types of scaffolds) and training requirements for scaffolding
- Duty to have fall protection
- Fall protection systems criteria and practices, as we well as training requirements
- Steel erection, underground construction, stairways and ladders, cranes, roofing, concrete erection, wall openings, and residential construction
The most frequently cited standard is 1926.501, "Duty to have fall protection". In this standard, employers must determine whether walking/working surfaces are able to support workers safely in strength and structural integrity, and must take action to protect workers from falling. Since there are many different ways a fall can occur on a worksite, especially in construction, employers should refer to this standard as much as they can and thoroughly determine which requirements are applicable to their specific workplace.
Whether workers must be protected from falling through holes, falling off ramps or walkways, or may be on the edge of a working surface or pit, there are two main fall protections OSHA asks employers to implement: installing guardrail systems or safety net systems, and providing workers with fall equipment such as a personal fall arrest system. In general, the aim of having fall protection is twofold. Physical barriers such as guardrail systems prevent workers in the first place from entering an environment in which they may fall. Personal equipment such as an arrest system takes safety a step further by ensuring workers are not injured in the event that a fall does occur.
Protecting Workers From Falls
The most successful way to protect your workers from falls that may occur on site is to provide them with the equipment and the communication they need to stay safe. The first step to workplace safety is awareness of present or potential hazards; conduct a job hazard analysis to determine what type of risks workers may be exposed to as they complete their tasks. If there are platforms, elevated workstations, holes in the floor, or other factors that workers must operate around, employers have the responsibility of warning their employees about these factors and providing equipment for fall protection.
Signs and Barriers
Increase awareness of fall hazards by implementing clear visual communication that alerts workers to the presence of holes, platforms, and other areas that involve a drop-off. You can install “Warning: Fall Hazard” signs and labels, as well as floor tape that has this type of messaging printed which highlights the hazardous area. Many workplaces install guardrails and other types of barriers around the fall area so that workers are physically separated from the danger and there is a visual cue not to enter.
Fall Arrest Equipment
Fall arrest systems are an integral aspect to any fall protection program. While each worker should get their own individual fall arrest system (also known as a personal fall arrest system, or PFAS), this equipment should be used with oversight from a competent person. A “competent” person is defined as someone who has been well informed of OSHA’s standards for fall protection (whether in construction or general industry) who is able to clearly identify hazards, and has the authority to correct these hazards. The competent person is responsible for training each worker each time fall protection equipment needs to be planned, set up, or used.
Fall arrest system products are inexpensive to invest in and very easy to use. When they’re implemented correctly, not only do they ensure that your company won’t be cited by OSHA for violating standards, but they can also save lives by preventing serious injuries. If you have a fall protection program in your workplace, you need an array of fall arrest equipment on hand.
Personal Fall Arrest Systems
OSHA requires a personal fall arrest system for workers who are exposed to vertical drops of six feet or more while they perform their duties. While OSHA’s standard 1926.502 covers the criteria for these fall protection systems in construction, this criteria may be also used for any industry; a PFAS is required no matter the type of task, whether the worker is in painting, mining, roofing, or electrical utility repair.
Regardless of the industry, it’s important for every worker who needs a PFAS to understand the major components of personal fall arrest systems, which are easily remembered as the ABCs:
- A=Anchorage. The anchor point that secures the rest of the fall protection system together should be attached to a stable structure that can support either twice the intended load or 5,000 pounds per worker. Where your anchors are located is a factor that should be planned before work even begins; if a worker falls, their anchorage will suspend them and prevent them from hitting the ground. It’s also recommended to position the anchor point directly above the worker, as this prevents a pendulum effect, which often leads to injuries despite the fall arrest.
- B=Body harness. Each PFAS requires a full body harness, which incorporates pads, webbing, and hardware. The padding of your fall protection harness should be comfortable and easy to adjust. The webbing should adhere to the standard of 5,000 pounds tensile strength. Overall, body harnesses must resist toxic chemical splashes or fumes as well as natural weather elements, so workers can complete tasks without worrying about affecting the integrity of their harnesses.
- C=Connectors. To link the full body harness and the anchor system together, a connecting device such as a shock-absorbing lanyard or retractable lifeline with connectors is needed. Connectors may include snap hooks, carabiners, rope grabs, or D-rings. Whichever the type of connector, it too must have a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds.
A worker receives maximum fall protection only if all three of these components are present in their arrest system. Each individual component cannot fully protect the worker on its own.
What is a Lanyard?
Safety harness lanyards and fall protection lanyards are lanyards designed specifically to be used as part of a PFAS. These are a little bit different than the lanyard you may use to keep track of your keys—safety lanyards are the vital link workers use to connect to anchor points. They are short sections of cable or webbing that is attached to the D-ring or other connectors of a worker’s safety harness. They’re able to be stretched out and have shock absorbing qualities. Generally, there are three main types of lanyards used for fall protection: shock-absorbing, self-retracting, and positioning.
Shock-absorbing lanyards are the most easy to use for fall protection. They have an expansion pack on one end, which expands up to 3.5 feet in order to help slow a fall. “Bungee” style shock-absorbing lanyards can go up to 9.5 feet after being deployed, and it is much easier to tell if they have been deployed during a descent. One of the most important things to consider if you choose this type of lanyard is your fall distance, as you’ll need a minimum of 18.5 feet of clearance in order to safely use them. Additionally, these types of lanyards are meant to arrest a fall after it has occurred, rather than preventing a fall in the first place; other lanyards are better suited for prevention.
Self-retracting lanyards (SRLs) have a short distance in which they engage. Once the tension releases, the lanyard recedes back into the casing, so there isn’t any slack and the arrest is a little bit safer. For most fall protection situations, SRLs are a great option.
Positioning lanyards provide you the least flexibility, and they were made to keep a worker in place rather than arrest a fall after a fall has occurred. They come in a fixed length and are typically used for specific construction tasks, such as working with concrete walls or using boom lifts. To prevent falls from happening in the first place, many construction companies select this type of lanyard.
There are many factors that go into the decision of which lanyard to use. Take careful consideration of your work environment and work tasks. If hot work is being performed, lanyards should be made of a material that won’t be burned or damaged; some are available in wire or Kevlar material. In construction, the only anchor points available may be at workers’ feet. In that case, you need a lanyard that allows for a more extended free fall than the general six feet. Each situation will be unique—which requires thoughtful consideration for your personal fall arrest system.
Reducing Falls in the Workplace
Trips, slips, and falls are among the leading causes of work-related injuries in a variety of industries each year. Falls are also the leading cause of death in construction—and it is entirely preventable. Six feet may seem deceptively short for a fall, but even a short distance can result in serious or life-threatening injuries.
To help employers reduce falls in the workplace, OSHA, the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), and the National Institute for Occupational Research and Health (NIOSH) has come together to provide education on preventing falls, as well as enforcement on standards. You can find fact sheets on this information from OSHA, as well as an in-depth explanation of the three main steps that have been established to reduce falls: plan, provide, and train.
First, preventing falls should be an aspect to the planning of any project or job. If the task requires workers to be at heights at any time, whether it’s from ladders, scaffolding, or platforms, you need to determine what equipment may be needed ahead of time to keep people safe. Then, this fall protection gear must be provided. If the job requires personal fall arrest systems, each worker should have their own individual PFAS.
The last step is often considered to be the most important: training workers on how to use their equipment, when to use it, and how to do so properly so they aren’t injured by the equipment if they do fall. The time and money you invest in fall arrest equipment won’t matter if the equipment is not used correctly. All workers should understand the setup and use of PFAS, ladders, and other equipment, and how to properly select anchors. There are training courses available to educate employees on workplace fall hazards.
Falls are an unfortunately common cause for work-related injuries and deaths each year. By becoming familiar with safety standards, planning ahead of time, communicating about hazards, and ensuring that workers are using correct equipment, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of these incidents occurring in your workplace. You can develop and implement a comprehensive fall protection program so employees stay safe.
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