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February 28, 2002

Fall Protection

By Maureen Alvarez, CIH, CSP

According to the US Department of Labor, falls are the leading cause of worker fatalities in the construction industry.  Each year, on average, between 150 and 200 workers are killed and more than 100,000 are injured as a result of falls at construction sites.  OSHA recognizes that accidents involving falls are generally complex events frequently involving a variety of factors.  Consequently the standard for fall protection deals with both the human and equipment-related issues in protecting workers from fall hazards. 

When work is performed on elevated surfaces such as roofs, or during construction activities, protection against falls must be considered.  Fall arresting systems, which include lifelines, body harnesses, and other associated equipment are often used when fall hazards cannot be controlled by railings, floors, nets and other means.  These systems are designed to stop a free fall of us to six feet while limiting the forces imposed on the wearer.

Fall protection is required for most construction activities by OSHA whenever work is performed in an area that is six feet higher than its surroundings.  Exceptions to this rule include work done from scaffolds, ladders and stairways, derricks and cranes and work involving electrical transmission and distribution.  Also excluded is the performance of inspections, investigations or assessments of existing conditions prior to the beginning or after the completion of construction. 

Fall protection is required whenever work is performed in an area six feet above its surroundings or six feet above a lower level.  Fall protection can generally be provided through the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems.  Where it can be clearly demonstrated that the use of these systems is infeasible or creates a greater hazard, a fall protection program that provides for alternative fall protection measures may be implemented.

Fall Protection Systems

A variety of systems may be chosen from when providing fall protection.  These systems include:

  • Guardrails:  Standard guardrails consist of a top rail located 42 inches above the floor and a mid rail.  Screens and mesh may be used to replace the mid-rail as long as they extend from the top rail to the floor.
  • Personal Fall Arresting Systems:  Components of a personal fall arresting system include a body harness, lanyard, lifeline, connector, and an anchorage point capable of supporting at least 5000 pounds.
  • Positioning Device Systems:  This type of system consists of a body harness rigged to allow work on a vertical surface, such as a wall, with both hands free.
  • Safety Monitoring by a Competent Person:  This system allows a trained person to monitor others as they work on elevated surfaces and warn them of any fall hazards.
  • Safety Net Systems:  These systems consist of nets installed as close as possible under the work area.
  • Warning Line Systems:  These systems are made up of lines or ropes installed around a work area on a roof.  These act as a barrier to prevent those working on the roof from approaching the edges.
  • Covers:  Covers are fastened over holes in working surfaces to prevent falls.

Workers should also be provided with protection from falling objects.  Work surfaces should be kept clear of material and debris by removal at regular intervals.  Toeboards should be used to prevent objects from being inadvertently kicked to a lower level.  When feasible canopies should be provided to help protect from falling objects.

Effective January 1, 1998, body harnesses are required for use with all fall arresting systems.  The body belt is no longer allowed to be worn.  Also, effective on that date, only locking type snaphooks can be used as part of a fall arresting system. 


Fall Protection Training must include the following:

  • How to recognize and minimize fall hazards
  • The nature of the fall hazards in the work area
  • Procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling and inspecting the specific fall protection system used
  • Use, operation and limitations of fall protection systems
  • The user's role in fall protection systems
  • Training should also include a hands-on session where your employees can put on their body harnesses and become familiar with the connections, lanyards, etc.  Most suppliers of fall protection equipment include hands-on training as part of their service when you purchase the equipment.
  • Fall protection equipment is provided to save your employees lives - make sure they know how to use it properly!
  • Also, included in the training program should be information regarding responsible individuals.  A well run Fall Protection Program includes identifying individuals to be responsible for the following roles:
  • Identify areas where fall protection is needed.
  • Obtain or develop fall protection systems
  • Ensure workers are trained and understand how to use and inspect the fall protection devices.
  • Ensure workers know where the fall protection devices are kept
  • Ensure workers use the fall protection devices

Working safely above the ground is important.  Please review the elevated work being performed in your workplace and implement a Fall Protection Program if needed.  Your employees and their families will thank you.

For OSHA regulations regarding Fall Protection, please search on the OSHA home page at http://www.osha.gov/.

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