Fall Protection: Failure is Not an Option

March 1, 2009
Despite special emphasis programs from OSHA and increasingly sophisticated fall protection equipment, falls from heights remain a serious occupational safety challenge.

Despite special emphasis programs from OSHA and increasingly sophisticated fall protection equipment, falls from heights remain a serious occupational safety challenge. In 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that fatal work injuries involving falls increased 5 percent after a sharp decrease in 2005. The 809 fatal falls in 2006 represent the third highest total since 1992, when the fatality census began. Fatal falls from roofs increased from 160 fatalities in 2005 to 184 in 2006, a rise of 15 percent.

Falls from ladders and roofs still account for the majority of falls. Occupational fatalities caused by falls remain a serious public health problem. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) lists falls as one of the leading causes of traumatic occupational death, accounting for 8 percent of all occupational fatalities from trauma.

Falls are the most frequent cause of fatalities at construction sites and annually account for one of every three construction-related deaths. According to preliminary 2007 fatality data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were at least 442 construction worker fatalities during 2007 as a result of falls from all causes.

Of this total, falls from roofs are one specific concern at construction sites and the most frequent cause for fatal falls in construction in 2007. In fact, BLS reports that from 2003 to 2007, construction worker falls from roofs resulted in 686 fatalities.

Identifying fall hazards and deciding how best to protect workers is the first step in reducing or eliminating fall hazards. OSHA mandates that at any time a worker is at a height of 4 feet or more, the worker is at risk and needs to be protected. Fall protection must be provided at 4 feet in general industry, 5 feet in maritime and 6 feet in construction.


There are a number of ways to protect workers from falls, including conventional systems such as guardrail systems, safety net systems and personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) (fall arrest systems, positioning systems and travel restraint systems) as well as through the use of safe work practices and training. The use of warning lines, designated areas, control zones and similar systems are permitted by OSHA in some situations and can provide protection by limiting the number of workers exposed and instituting safe work methods and procedures. These alternative systems may be more appropriate than conventional fall protection systems when performing certain activities.

Whether conducting a hazard assessment or developing a comprehensive fall protection plan, thinking about fall hazards before the work begins will help to manage fall hazards and focus attention on prevention efforts. If personal fall protection systems are used, particular attention should be given to identifying attachment points and to ensuring that employees know how to properly don and inspect the equipment.


There are three key components (anchorage/anchorage connector, body wear and connecting device) of a PFAS that must be in place and properly used to provide maximum worker protection.

Individually, these components will not provide protection from a fall. However, when used properly and in conjunction with each other, they form a PFAS that becomes vitally important for safety on the job site.

Six major recurring errors in fall protection have been identified. From the bottom to the top, here they are:


The need for consistency in using fall protection often is ignored. It is important to have a plan and implement it, and that means wearing fall protection equipment every day. The plan should include identification and evaluation of fall hazards and their elimination, if possible; the use of appropriate fall-protection systems to prevent or control falls when hazards can't be eliminated; ensuring that employees receive fall-protection training; and inspecting and maintaining equipment.


Although more workers today are using fall protection gear, it's not always used correctly. In many instances, workers wear the harnesses too loose.

While misusing harnesses is a big mistake, many contractors also buy incorrect equipment for specific applications. One common example is that many contractors buy shock-absorbing lanyards and use them in areas with inadequate fall clearance. A retractable lifeline or a fall limiter should be used in certain circumstances.


Knowing when a product should be removed from service is key to safe working conditions. Equipment must be inspected regularly and taken out of service if it shows wear and tear. Using equipment past its useful life, especially a lanyard, is a potentially deadly mistake.

Adopt a “Smart Policy”: If in doubt, throw it out. The benefit of an extra week or month of service isn't worth the risk.

A few of the things to be on the lookout for include fraying, cuts and deformed metal hardware. Also, exposure to heat and chemicals can cause additional damage. Signs of deployment mean safety equipment no longer can be used.


Lack of instructions — in the appropriate language — is a key reason equipment is misused or not used at all. Safety directors need to check the instructions provided with equipment, and assure proper training is provided.

As an employer, you can determine the training format. What's important is that, through training, your employees can recognize fall hazards and know procedures to minimize the hazards.

It's important that the trainer knows the hazards at the work site, knows how to eliminate or control the hazards and knows how to teach workers to protect themselves. That's why the trainer must be a competent person. (A competent person is one who can identify work-site hazards and who has management authority to control them.) The trainer must know and be able to explain the following:

  • The nature of fall hazards at the work site.
  • Procedures for erecting, maintaining and disassembling fall protection systems and personal fall arrest systems.
  • How to use and operate fall- protection systems and personal fall arrest systems.
  • The role of each employee who may be affected by a safety- monitoring system.
  • The restrictions that apply to mechanical equipment used during roofing work.
  • The procedure for handling and storing materials and for erecting protection from falling objects.
  • OSHA's fall protection standards.


Selecting inadequate anchorages is a major problem. The best harness with the best lanyard or lifeline cannot arrest a fall if unsuitable anchorages are selected.

An anchorage must support 5,000 pounds for a single tie-off point for one individual. In all cases, the free fall should be limited to 6 feet or less.

An anchorage should be positioned directly overhead whenever possible to avoid a swing fall injury and anchorages should be selected based on how a rescue would be performed.


Don't wait for a fall to occur before taking action to update your fall protection plan. When identifying a fall hazard, analyze the likelihood of fatal or serious injury, as well as the amount of time employees will be exposed to the hazard. Basically, you want to eliminate the fall by changing the work process or environment.

If you remember these three steps for proper fall protection — eliminate a fall hazard entirely, prevent a fall from happening and provide personal fall arrest equipment — you will save lives and prevent serious injuries.

Edward J. Bickrest is the marketing communications manager for Miller brand fall protection, Sperian Fall Protection Inc. He can be contacted at 401-233-0333 or [email protected].

Fall Protection Tips From OSHA

  • Identify all potential tripping and fall hazards before work starts.
  • Look for fall hazards such as unprotected floor openings/ edges, shafts, skylights, stairwells and roof openings/ edges.
  • Inspect fall protection equipment for defects before use.
  • Select, wear and use fall protection equipment appropriate for the task.
  • Secure and stabilize all ladders before climbing them.
  • Never stand on the top rung/ step of a ladder.
  • Use handrails when you go up or down stairs.
  • Practice good housekeeping. Keep cords, welding leads and air hoses out of walkways or adjacent work areas.

Make fall protection part of your workplace safety and health program.

  • Be committed to preventing and controlling fall hazards.
  • Identify and evaluate fall hazards.
  • Eliminate fall hazards, if possible.
  • Use appropriate fall-protection systems to prevent or control falls when hazards can't be eliminated.
  • Report fall hazards and suggest how to control them.
  • Ensure that employees receive fall-protection training.
  • Inspect and maintain equipment.
  • Know how to respond promptly to emergencies.
  • Understand regulations related to fall-protection requirements.
  • Enforce safe work procedures and practices.
  • Investigate all falls and near-miss incidents.
  • Evaluate fall-protection procedures regularly.

Source: Oregon OSHA

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