Fall Protection

WALKING-WORKING SURFACES: How to Control Fall Hazards

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: October 16th, 2014
Topics: Fall Protection |

fall protection

OSHA mandates that employers identify and assess the severity of the safety risks their employees may face. Once a list of all hazards is made by someone familiar with the area and processes, you are charged with “controlling the hazards” by either eliminating or mitigating (lessening or minimizing) the severity of each of them so that they are no longer a hazard.

Engineering Controls

There are a number of ways to protect workers from falls, but the best method by far is to first eliminate the hazard altogether so that the employee cannot fall.  This can be accomplished through the use of what is often called fall prevention systems. These include hole covers, guardrails and fall restraint systems.

A fall restraint system is different than a fall arrest system (see below) because it assures that the worker is attached to an anchorage point that does not permit them to go over the leading edge of the work area – they stop the possibility of a fall, while allowing the worker to continue to work at a height.

Safe Work Practices & Administrative Controls

The use of warning lines, designated areas, control zones and similar systems are considered safe work practices/administrative controls and are an alternative to using engineering controls to eliminate the hazard.  Because these controls only reduce the hazard to the workers but do not eliminate it, they are less preferable than engineering controls.   You should also be aware that they are permitted by OSHA only in certain situations so be sure you understand the rules before using them.

However, even with engineering controls in place, safe work practices and training should be a part of an overall Fall Protection Program. They provide an additional measure of protection to your workers and help them to stay focused on the hazards posed by falls.

Selecting Personal Protective Equipment

The least preferable and most misused type of fall protection is personal protective equipment (PPE); personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) and safety nets.  Neither system keeps a worker from falling, all they do is prevent them from getting hurt or killed by hitting the ground.  Be very careful not to fall into the trap of using these systems as your first line of protection.  Many workers are lulled into a false sense of security and are seriously injured or die because they assume their fall arrest system will keep them from getting hurt.

Even more often we hear the sad tales of workers who used the systems incorrectly; they forgot to inspect their harnesses, or they didn’t calculate the fall clearance and their system didn’t fully engage before they hit the ground. And don’t forget that, as with all PPE, there is a failure rate due to equipment failure or employee misuses, such as failing to tie off or using safety nets that haven’t been inspected and are damaged.  Finally, if a fall protection system is successful, they often leave workers dangling many feet off the ground. Without a rescue system in place with works trained in high angle or rope rescue, many workers who survive a fall perish waiting to be rescued.

OSHA has very detailed requirements for the use of PFAS.  Each component of the system has its own requirements for construction and use, designed to slowly decelerate the worker’s fall and limit the fall forces to maximize their chances of surviving a fall. No worker should ever be placed in a PFAS without extensive training by a person competent in fall protection systems and no worker should ever be permitted to use fall protection unless they are under the direct supervisor on someone who knows and understands the risks and proper use of the system.

The easiest way to think about this system is to think of A-B-C; a PFAS consists of:

A = Anchorage point

  • Anchorage points must be capable of supporting 5,000# of load.  Most often they are support structures of I-beams. Workers should never tie off to a structure that is not capable of supporting their fall like a ladder, guardrail or similar structure.

B = Body harness

  • Workers must don a full body harness and make sure that all straps are secure; more than one worker has failed to secure the legs straps and fallen out of their harness.  Body harnesses must be constructed with a D-ring at the worker’s shoulders.
  • In the US, OSHA has prohibited the use of body belts for fall protection since 1998 because of the risk of damage to a worker’s torso when subjected to a fall. In addition, workers have sometimes fallen out of safety belts while awaiting rescue.  Body belts may only be used for positioning.

C = Connection

  • This refers to the equipment that connects a worker’s harness to the anchorage point and varies by different situations. They include lanyards (rope and shock absorbing) as well as lifelines (horizontal and vertical and self-retracting).

Make sure that all workers who use a PFAS inspect it prior to use as well as afterwards. Any damage due to rips, tears, or chemicals can make the equipment useless in a fall and must be thrown away.  In addition, anytime a PFAS is subjected to a fall, it must be taken out of service. In some cases, the PFAS can be used again, but only if it can be re-certified by a manufacturer capable of determine that. Usually the cost of having this recertification performed is cost-prohibitive.

Safety nets are another form of fall protection, although they would not typically be considered “person” protective equipment. Like PFAS they have very specific requirements for their use and are fairly limited to situations where workers are at great heights. Before attempting to use safety nets, you should be certain to review the regulations that apply to them and obtain training on their safe use.