Back to Basics, Personnel Safety, Training

Back to Basics: Fall Prevention in Construction

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine OSHA’s standards for fall protection and prevention in construction.

This week (May 2-6) is the National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction, which is a voluntary event that encourages employers to talk directly to employees about fall prevention and safety. This event is being held jointly by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), and the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR).

Subpart M

OSHA states that falls are the leading cause of death in construction, and that these deaths are preventable. Specific guidance for fall protection is outlined in Subpart M, which contains the requirements and criteria for fall protection in construction workplaces.

The standard applies to workers are working at heights of 6 feet for more above a lower level, and at less than 6 feet when working near dangerous equipment. It also covers protection from falling objects and falls from tripping over or falling through holes, says OSHA. The standard does not apply to workers inspecting, investigating, or assessing workplace conditions before the work starts or after all construction has finished.  

According to OSHA, fall protection can generally be provided through the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems, which are all referred to as conventional fall protection. Other systems can be employed for specific tasks, but overall, OSHA wants employers to implement systems that can prevent any and all kinds of falls, like guardrails.

Conventional fall protection systems

There are three main conventional fall protection systems that OSHA outlines in their standard. The first is guardrail systems, which are barriers erected to prevent workers from falling to lower levels. The top rails must be 42 inches, give or take 3 inches, above the walking or working level, and if workers are using stilts, the top edge of the top rail must be increased to an amount equal to the height of the stilts. Guardrail systems must be capable of withstanding a force of at least 200 pounds applied within 2 inches of the top edge, in any outward or downward direction, at any point along the top edge. Midrails, screens, mesh, intermediate vertical members, solid panels, and equivalent structural members must be capable of withstanding at least a 150-pound force. Lastly, guardrail systems must have a surface to protect workers from punctures or lacerations and to prevent clothing from snagging.

The second system is safety net systems. When safety nets are used, OSHA requires that they be installed as close as practicable under the walking or working surface and never more than 30 feet below that level. All safety nets have to be installed with sufficient clearance underneath to prevent a falling body from hitting the surface or structure below the net. Drop-testing is required to ensure that safety nets and installations are working correctly.

The final system is personal fall arrest systems, which are used to safely stop a worker who is falling from a working level. This kind of system consists of an anchorage, connectors, and a body harness, and may also include a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline, or suitable combinations of these. Employers should limit the maximum arresting force on a worker to 1,800 pounds when used with a body harness and make sure the system is inspected prior to each use for damage, wear, and other deterioration, removing defective parts when necessary. These systems should be rigged so that a worker cannot free fall more than 6 feet nor come into contact with any lower level, and they should have enough strength to withstand twice the potential impact energy of a worker free falling a distance of 6 feet or the distance permitted by the system.

Protection from falling objects

When working in construction, falling objects can be a major hazard for workers at the jobsite, so OSHA clearly outlines its standards for protection. When guardrail systems are used to prevent materials from falling from one level to another, employers must make sure that openings are small enough to prevent objects from falling through. During overhand bricklaying or related activities, no materials or equipment except mortar and masonry may be stored within 4 feet of working edges. During roofing work, materials and equipment must not be stored within 6 feet of a roof edge unless guardrail systems are put up.

If toeboards are used in this kind of protection, they must be put up along the edges of the overhead walking or working surface for a distance sufficient to protect workers below. They also must be capable of withstanding a force of at least 50 pounds without failure. Toeboards must be 3.5 inches tall from their top edge to the level of the walking or working surface, and must have no more than a 0.25-inch clearance above the surface. Lastly, if canopies are used, they must be strong enough to prevent collapse and penetration by any objects that might fall onto them.

Fall protection plans

Fall protection plans are meant to serve as a substitute when conventional fall protection systems are not enough to prevent hazards, or when there is a job-specific need for a certain kind of plan. According to OSHA, there are several key elements of fall protection plans that employers must be aware of when implementing one:

  • A fall protection plan must be prepared by a qualified person, developed specifically for the jobsite, and implemented under the supervision of a competent person.
  • A copy of the plan must be kept at the jobsite, maintained and kept up to date, and any changes must be approved by the qualified person.
  • The plan must document why a conventional fall protection system is insufficient or would create a greater hazard, and identify where conventional fall protection methods cannot be used, which must then be classified as controlled access zones.
  • The plan must include the names or identifications of each worker who is authorized to work in the controlled access zones, and no other workers are allowed to enter it.
  • Where no other alternate measure has been implemented, the employer must implement a safety monitoring system.
  • If a worker falls, or another serious incident or near miss occurs, the employer must investigate the circumstances to determine if the fall protection plan needs to be changed, and implement the needed changes to prevent similar incidents.

Fall protection training

Lastly, employers must provide a fall protection training program to workers who may be exposed to fall hazards on the job, says OSHA, and the training must include how to recognize and minimize fall hazards. Each worker must be trained by a competent person who is qualified in many areas, including the nature of fall hazards at the jobsite, the correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling, and inspecting the fall protection systems, and the role of each worker in the fall protection plan and safety monitoring systems.

Employers must verify this training by preparing a written certification record that contains the name or other identification of each worker, the training dates, and the signature of either the person who conducted the training or the employer’s. Workers require retraining when changes in the workplace make previous training obsolete, fall protection equipment or systems have changed, or when the worker shows inadequate knowledge or use of the fall protection systems that indicates they did not understand or retain the previous training.

For the full details of OSHA’s fall protection standard in construction, click here.