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Fall Hazards in Construction: How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic

Toby Graham /

Do you know everything you need to know about the 10 most frequently cited Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards? In this series, we’re exploring the most common OSHA violations, one by one. Keep reading to learn how to avoid OSHA citations and protect your workforce from falling risks.

OSHA’s Top of the Tops

When looking at OSHA’s top 10 most cited standards in 2020 the clear winner for most violations goes to fall hazards on roofs, scaffolds, lifts, and ladders. And not surprisingly, for the 10th year in a row fall protection was the most frequently cited OSHA violation. Included on OSHA’s top 10 list of most-cited violations include:

Historically, falls are the leading cause of fatalities in construction, and they account for about one-third of all fatalities in the construction industry. The vast majority of the fall fatalities are to lower levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that of the 5,330 worker fatalities in the US in 2019, 1,066 occurred in the construction industry and estimate that over 300 of those deaths were the result of a fall. BLS estimates that eliminating fall hazards in construction would save approximately 300 lives annually. Workers who are most at risk are laborers, roofers, and carpenters.

OSHA recognizes that fall incidents are typically complex events that can involve a variety of factors. OSHA’s standard for fall protection addresses both human factors as well as equipment-related issues in its effort to protect workers from fall hazards.

OSHA’s Fall Protection Standard: What is it

OSHA’s Subpart M addresses the requirements and criteria for fall protection in construction workplaces. It applies when workers are working at heights of 6 feet or more above a lower level. The provisions of Subpart M can be found in Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Subpart M - Fall Protection, 29 CFR 1926.500, 29 CFR 1926.501, 29 CFR 1926.502, and 29 CFR 1926.503.

Simple definition: When construction workers are performing work at heights of 6 feet or more they must be protected from falling.  

How to protect workers at heights

OSHA defines fall protection as “any equipment, device, or system that prevents a worker from falling from an elevation or mitigates the effect of such a fall.” Employers may choose from the following fall protection options:

  • Guardrail System – A barrier erected along an unprotected or exposed side, edge, or other area of a walking-working surface to prevent workers from falling to a lower level.
  • Safety Net System – A horizontal or semi-horizontal, cantilever-style barrier that uses a netting system to stop falling workers before they make contact with a lower level or obstruction.
  • Personal Fall Arrest System – A system that arrests/stops a fall before the worker contacts a lower level. Consists of a body harness, anchorage, and connector, and may include a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline, or a suitable combination.
  • Travel Restraint System – A combination of an anchorage, anchorage connector, lanyard (or other means of connection), and body support to eliminate the possibility of a worker going over the unprotected edge or side of a walking-working surface.

Why Fall Protection Violations Happen

Fall protection violations are very common because construction workers are frequently exposed to fall hazards when working on rooftops, openings on sides of buildings, scaffolding, mobile elevated work platforms (lifts), ladders, and other heights.  According to the BLS, of the 5,333 worker deaths in 2019, 880 were the result of a slip, trip, and fall accident.

Some common causes of fall protection violations include:

  • Improper ladder use
  • Using a defective ladder
  • Scaffolding collapse
  • Lack of scaffold inspection by a competent person
  • Absence of guardrails
  • Faulty stairways

What You Stand to Lose When Fall Protection Violations Happen

Direct costs: OSHA penalties can exceed $13,000 per violation—and as much per day for every day the issue hasn’t been fixed by OSHA’s deadline. The fine for a willful or repeated violation can be 10 times as much.

Indirect costs:

  • workers’ compensation claims from workers injured from a fall
  • lost productivity during and after an incident
  • legal and compliance fees
  • decreased morale
  • negative publicity and reputational damage

Signs You’re at Risk of Fall Protection Violation

You work in construction: Working at heights is extremely common in the construction industry. Anytime a worker is working at 6 feet or more near unprotected openings and edges there is a risk of falling. And the farther the fall, the more dangerous the outcome.

Your workforce hasn’t been trained properly or consistently: Every worker who works at heights needs to understand the risks of a fall and what measures must be put into place to prevent them from falling.Training should be conducted annually.

How to Avoid an Fall Protection Violation: Your Prevention Checklist

Personal Fall Arrest Systems

  • Are all anchorages capable of supporting a 5,000-pound load per worker attached?
  • Has all personal fall arrest equipment been inspected prior to use for wear and damage, including tears, burns, ripped stitching, and buckle or connector damage?
  • Do lifelines, lanyards, snap hooks, and D-rings have a minimum strength of 5,000 pounds?
  • Has a rescue plan been designed and implemented for the particular fall protection system being used on the project?
  • Have employees been trained in rescue equipment and techniques?

Guardrail Systems

  • Are guardrails at the proper height? The height of the toprail must be between 39 inches (0.9 meters) and 45 inches (1.2 meters). Each toprail or guardrail system must be capable of withstanding 200 pounds of force.
  • Are midrails installed correctly? Midrails must be installed approximately halfway between the toprail and the platform surface. The midrail must support 150 pounds of force.

Ladders

  • Are ladders free of damage and debris?
  • Are ladders the appropriate type and height for the job?
  • Are extension ladders set at an appropriate angle (4 to 1)?
  • Are ladders placed on a firm and flat surface?

Scaffold

  • Has the scaffold been designed by a qualified person?
  • Are guardrails or personal fall arrest systems being used for fall prevention/protection are required for workers on platforms 10 feet or higher?
  • Is the scaffold inspected daily by a competent person prior to each work shift?

Holes

  • Are all holes in floors greater than 2 inches covered and properly labeled?

Training

  • Have employees been trained in accordance with OSHA’s regulation 1926.503?

Have questions? Looking for more information about OSHA Standards? We’re here to help.

KPA can help you develop a comprehensive EHS program that harnesses technology, best practices, and the concerted efforts of your workforce to maintain a safe and productive workplace. Looking for more information and tips about preventing fall protection violations?

KPA’s here to help.

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