OSHA case history: Two construction workers with no training were working on a motorized two-point suspension scaffold 70 feet above ground without safety belts, lanyards or lifelines. Three wire rope clips forming an eye for connecting the wire rope to the C hook failed, and that end of the scaffold dropped down. One employee fell to his death. The second worker was catapulted through an open window where office workers pulled him to safety. Two of the rope clips were still attached to the end of the rope after the incident. The inside tread of the third clip, which gave, was found to be stripped.

Unfortunately, this incident is not uncommon in construction, where 150 to 200 workers are killed each year, and more than 100,000 are injured. It's no wonder fall protection regulations are among the most frequently cited during OSHA inspections in the construction industry.

Six feet or higher

The goal of standard 1926.500-503 is to protect workers from falling six feet or more from an elevation and to prevent tools and equipment from falling on employees working at lower levels. The types of areas or activities that require fall protection are numerous: ramps; runways and other walkways; excavations; hoist areas; holes; formwork and reinforcing steel; leading edge work; unprotected sides and edges; overhand bricklaying and related work; roofing work; precast concrete erection; wall openings; residential construction; and other walking/ working surfaces.

Steel erection of buildings is covered by a different standard.

A thorough fall protection safety program includes determining whether walking or working surfaces have the strength and structural integrity to support workers, and then deciding if fall protection is needed. If so, the fall protection system(s) selected must be appropriate for the work environment and must be properly constructed and installed. Employees should be supervised carefully, and safe work procedures must be provided and followed.

Choice of options

Incidents involving falls are complex events with multiple causes, so OSHA gives employers a choice of fall protection options, depending on the type of work being performed. These choices include:

  • controlled access zones
  • safety nets
  • guardrails
  • personal fall arrest systems
  • warning lines
  • positioning device systems.

When an employee is exposed to falling six feet (1.8 meters) or more from an unprotected side or edge, OSHA requires installation of a guardrail system, safety net system, personal fall arrest system or a combination, to protect the worker.

Guardrail systems. The regulations have specific requirements for guardrail systems, including a top rail with a height of 42 inches plus or minus 3 inches above the walking/working level. Midrails must be installed halfway between the surface and the top rail. Toeboards should be used to prevent objects from falling to a lower level.

Personal fall arrest systems. These systems, which must prevent a free fall of more than six feet and bring the employee to a complete stop, consist of an anchorage, connectors and a body harness and may include a deceleration device and lifeline. Body belts are no longer permitted as part of a fall arrest system - only full body harnesses should be used.

The hooks and anchorages must comply with specific performance standards. Dee rings and snaphooks must be proof-tested to withstand a load of 3,600 pounds without cracking, breaking or suffering permanent deformities. Snaphooks should be compatible with the connecting link or be of a locking configuration. Anchorages must be designed, installed and used under the supervision of a qualified person and must be capable of supporting at least twice the weight expected.

All elevated holes, such as skylights, and hoist areas should have covers strong enough to withstand the weight of the workers and should be labeled and secured. If the cover must be removed, the area should be protected by guardrails or the use of personal fall arrest systems.

Safety net systems. Often used for worksites that are located over water such as bridges, these systems should be installed as close as possible to the working surface and never more than 30 feet below. Sufficient clearance underneath should prevent contact with the surface or structure below.

Human involvement

When guardrail, personal fall arrest or safety net systems are not practical for the work involved, OSHA permits the following monitored systems, which rely more on employee involvement and less on engineering solutions:

Controlled access zones. This system limits access to a controlled area that is flagged and roped off. Control lines must be constructed near the unprotected or leading edge.

Safety monitoring system. In this system, often found in roofing, the employer appoints a competent person to be the safety monitor to warn employees if they are getting too close to the edge. The monitor must not work on anything else while watching the work operations. Usually, warning lines are erected to signal that the edge is near. No mechanical equipment should be used when a safety monitor is present.

Lives at stake

The lives of your workers are literally at stake, so it is essential that you have a comprehensive fall protection training program. OSHA requires you to teach your employees how to recognize and minimize fall hazards.

OSHA also demands that you review all aspects of the fall protection systems in place, along with each employee's role in those systems. Workers should be trained in how to properly select, use and maintain the systems. Review the correct procedures for equipment and material handling and storage and the erection of overhead protection. And be sure to cover the OSHA regulations.

Prepare a written, signed certification for each employee trained, and provide retraining as needed. The steps you take to protect your workers are an investment that you can't afford to ignore.

This article was adapted from material previously published by Business & Legal Reports, Inc. (BLR). Contributing editors: Marcia Wagshol and Barbara Kelly.

SIDEBAR: What to look for in OSHA's three standard fall protection systems:

1. Guardrails
  • Able to withstand a force of at least 200 pounds
  • Midrails and screens where there's no wall at least 21 inches high
  • Construction materials that can't puncture skin or snag clothes
  • No steel or plastic bands for top or middle rails

2. Safety nets

  • Strong rope border, with mesh openings smaller than 36 inches square or six inches per side
  • Strength certified or tested by dropping a 400-lb., 30-in. dia. sandbag
  • Inspected weekly for wear, damage and deterioration
  • Removed from use if not in top condition

3. Personal fall arrest system

  • Body harness connected to fixed anchor by lanyard, lifeline or deceleration
  • Positioning device style used on elevated vertical surface work
  • Not used to hoist materials
  • Self-locking, self-closing connectors required
  • Anchor can support at least 5,000 pounds per attached employee
  • Can't connect to platform supports or suspension points, guardrails or hoists
  • Use only when rescue system is in place