June 02, 2021 | By JETechnology Staff
Fall protection is a vital aspect of any workplace safety program. Required by U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, fall protection saves lives every day by preventing falls or protecting fallen workers from being seriously injured. Fall protection requires a multi-level approach, including eliminating fall risks, preventing fall hazards and equipping workers with the right personal protective equipment.
Fall protection is all about mitigating risks and keeping workers safe while they perform dangerous tasks. This guide to all things fall protection covers the different types of fall protection systems and the four approaches to fall protection, as well as some of the specific equipment involved.
What Is Fall Protection?
Fall protection is a systematic approach using techniques and specialized equipment to stop workers from falling from heights. Heights are one of the most common causes of injury or fatality on job sites around the world. Using fall protection equipment and methods and providing fall protection training can save lives.
In the construction industry and other sectors, it’s common for workers to need to be lifted to heights to perform specific job duties. Some of the jobs that involve working at heights include:
- Window cleaners.
- Utility workers.
- Crane technicians or inspectors.
- Aerial lift operators.
- Oil and gas drillers.
- Service and maintenance technicians.
Some of the risks of working at heights include:
- Slipping, tripping and falling off overhead platforms or elevated work stations.
- Falling through holes in the walls or flooring.
- Slipping on unstable or wet ground and falling into dangerous machinery or equipment.
- Falling due to failed safety equipment or failed aerial equipment.
Fall protection standards are defined and enforced by OSHA — a division of the United States Department of Labor. Employers across the nation are responsible for knowing and enforcing the various health and safety requirements set forth by OSHA. This means in occupations with high risks of falls, employers must develop and ensure comprehensive fall protection safety plans to keep their employees safe.
When it comes to the basics of fall protection, OSHA requires employers to:
- Prevent and eliminate known workplace hazards.
- Keep floors and surfaces dry and free from spills.
- Provide fall protection equipment to employees at no cost to the worker.
- Clearly explain and thoroughly train workers on workplace hazards related to falls or any other risk.
Fall protection is far more complex than just getting the right gear. Employers need to also gain a full understanding of fall protection philosophy — including the types of fall protection, the methods for preventing falls and the array of equipment needed to protect against falls.
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What Are the Types of Fall Protection?
Fall protection involves systems and methods that make up a fall protection hierarchy. At the first level, the goal is to prevent falls from occurring in the first place. This is done by actively recognizing and eliminating the hazards that lead to falls. When the hazard cannot be or is not eliminated, then the second level of the fall protection kicks in, which involves passive restraint — static fixtures like guardrails or barricades that prevent a serious fall. Finally, when the first two lines of defense fail, the worker needs to rely on an active arrest system that mitigates fall-related injuries or fatalities.
1. Passive Protection
Broadly, fall protection can be either passive or active. Passive fall protection systems are all the fixed protection measures that workers don’t interact with. These include supplies like netting, barricades and guardrail systems that are placed along work platforms to prevent workers from falling over the edge. They don’t include any of the equipment that workers personally wear for protection.
2. Fall Restraint
Like passive protection, fall restraint systems also aim to prevent the worker from falling from existing hazards. However, they’re an active fall prevention system in that the worker is physically attached to a restraint device.
Primarily, fall restraint involves restricting worker movement to distances short enough that would prevent them from falling over an exposed edge. Alternatively, fall restraint may also involve a positioning system, which prevents the worker from falling, yet it leaves their hands free. Fall restraint equipment involves either a safety belt or body harness that must be rated to hold a certain amount of weight. They’re anchored to a fixed point to prevent and restrict movement.
3. Fall Arrest
While fall restraint prevents falls, fall arrest systems help achieve the third level of the fall protection hierarchy — protection once a fall has occurred. Fall arrest systems are also active, consisting of lanyards and lifelines that arrest a worker mid-fall to mitigate injury or fatality. They are the last line of defense in fall protection.
4 Methods of Fall Protection
Fall protection methods encompass the different levels of the fall protection hierarchy. At each level, there is a different approach to keeping workers safe, including different equipment, policies and expertise needed to enforce the method.
The fall protection methods range from indirect prevention, such as hazard recognition and elimination, to direct protection against an occurring fall. Learn more about the four methods of fall protection below.
1. Fall Elimination
The best way to protect workers from falls is to prevent them from happening in the first place. And the best way to prevent falls is to eliminate the hazards that cause them. In the fall elimination method of fall protection, employers work to eliminate the need for the worker to be at heights.
For example, rather than climbing a ladder to change a lightbulb, the worker can use an extension pole. Other reach-and-extend solutions exist to replace the need to climb to heights. Another way to prevent fall elimination is to assemble equipment on the ground before it gets hoisted to heights. This is especially beneficial for workers erecting scaffolding. By assembling pieces on the ground first and then having them raised to heights, it limits the amount of time the workers need to spend at heights unprotected by guardrails.
Fall elimination practices are always considered the most effective method for protecting workers from falls. The worker never has to be suspended above a working surface, and, therefore, cannot fall.
2. Fall Prevention
In this method, workers are given the fall prevention equipment and safety supplies needed to prevent a fall from happening.
Fall prevention includes passive restraints, like barriers and guardrails, which the worker doesn’t physically manipulate themselves. They’re erected by management or attached to platforms to comply with OSHA fall protection regulations. Also included in the fall prevention method is the fall restraint system. These systems position workers in a way that prevents them from falling while still being free to do their work. They also restrict their movement, such as being anchored to a fixed point with only a short amount of lead to work with. Having their movement restricted at height means they physically can’t reach the edge, so they can’t fall.
3. Fall Arrest
If a worker ends up falling, the fall arrest equipment catches the worker mid-fall, stopping them before they impact the ground. Fall arrest involves a body harness, as well as a lanyard or lifeline secured to an anchor point. When the worker falls, the safety line breaks their fall.
Fall arrest can still result in injury, as the sudden breaking motion of the body harness and line can be painful. However, the potential injuries sustained from fall arrest are minimal compared to the damage a worker can suffer from hitting the ground. Many falls are fatal, and some can cause permanent injury.
4. Administrative Controls
Administrative controls are important aspects of an overall safety program. They encompass all the policies, procedures, trainings and warnings that the safety team administers and enforces. Administrative controls build awareness about fall hazards, educate workers on how to protect themselves and hold employees accountable for safety infractions.
However, in terms of having a direct impact on fall protection, administrative controls are the least effective way of actively protecting workers from falls. Yet, in a company with a positive safety culture, effective administrative controls can reduce the likelihood that workers will end up in situations that would result in falls altogether.
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Fall Protection Equipment
Fall protection systems are effective because of the wide variety of equipment designed to keep workers safe. Many of these components work together to create a comprehensive fall restraint or arrest system that workers personally use while working at heights.
Here is an overview of some of the most important components of fall protection equipment:
- Anchors: Anchors are crucial components of fall protection systems, attaching to the vital lifelines or lanyards in a worker’s fall arrest equipment. The anchor acts as the secure connection between the fixed and secure point and the worker themself. It’s crucial that anchors be manufactured and installed correctly to support the full weight of the worker.
- Harnesses: Full body harnesses are the life-saving components of a fall arrest system. They’re attached to either a lanyard or a lifeline, which are then attached to the anchor point. In the event of a fall, the body harness catches the worker’s weight, while the lifeline prevents the worker from hitting the ground. In a fall arrest system, a body harness is much safer than a basic safety belt, which can either slip or cut into the worker under their weight.
- Connectors: Connectors are the devices that link between the body support components of the system and the anchorage point. Connectors come in a variety of types, including shock-absorbing lifelines, self-retracting lanyards or fixed lanyards that restrict movement, such as in a fall restraint system.
- Netting: Safety nets are passive fall protection devices that behave as a barrier between the worker and the edge of the platform or elevated workstation. Netting can also be positioned below the worker to break their fall in case of an accident. Nets are engineered to withstand and absorb the kinetic energy of a falling worker and reduce their risk of injury.
- Guardrail systems: As part of a passive approach to fall protection, workers should have barriers and guardrail systems installed around them to prevent a fall from occurring. Guardrails are fixed barriers that line a vulnerable edge, physically intervening between the worker and the fall point.
- Drop prevention: Sometimes, when working from heights, workers drop tools or supplies that they’re using at heights. Dropped objects can cause severe injury to people on the ground below and destroy valuable tools. Drop prevention devices allow a worker to secure tools to their person to prevent them from falling to the ground below.
- Rescue and descent: In fall protection and occupational safety, rescue and descent devices are life-saving tools. Rescue and descent devices help raise a fallen worker and return them to safety or retrieve them from confined spaces. When a fall arrest system has done its job and has broken the fall of your worker, rescue and descent devices provide you with a way to retrieve them as they hang in mid-air suspended by their harness and lifeline.
- Horizontal lifelines: A horizontal lifeline is a connector, usually made of synthetic rope, that links between the anchor point and the body harness in a fall arrest or restraint system. As the name suggests, the rope attaches horizontally between the worker and the anchor point when employees work parallel to their work surface.
- Vertical lifelines: Alternatively, vertical lifelines are connecting lines that allow the worker to move up and down the length of the lifeline. Vertical lifelines are beneficial because they don’t require the worker to detach and reattach to new tie-off points along scaffolding, ladders or other aerial equipment.
- Self-retracting lifelines: Self-retracting lifelines are retractable connectors that minimize the amount of line as the worker moves about their work surface. Self-retracting lifelines prevent tripping over the excess line.
It’s vital that workers be trained on how to properly use and maintain this equipment. Employers are responsible for ensuring the proper equipment is provided and that workers know how to operate it appropriately.
What Is the OSHA Standard for Fall Protection?
Safety managers must be aware of the conditions under which OSHA requires fall protection, as well as the type of fall protection and fall protection methods needed to keep workers safe. OSHA sets standards for both the height at which a worker can work, as well as the type of work they do and on which surfaces.
Below are the two ways that OSHA enforces fall protection regulations for height and type of work:
- Height of work: Subpart M of OSHA’s regulations lays out the fall protection standards, including the well-known six-foot rule. All construction workers working at heights of six feet or more above a lower level require fall protection equipment. When working near dangerous equipment, such as conveyor belts or machinery, fall protection is required regardless of height.
- Type of work: OSHA also distinguishes between the types of work done at heights. Activities requiring fall protection include working on leading edges, overhead ramps, runways or walkways, slopes, roofs or open excavation pits.
According to OSHA, the number one violation on their top 10 list of workplace safety citations in 2019 was fall protection in the construction industry. Falls caused 880 fatalities in 2019, which was up 11% from the previous year. Given these tragic statistics, it’s vital for employers to follow and remain committed to these basics of fall protection set out by OSHA.
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Fall Protection FAQs
Safety managers have the important job of developing fall protection policies, ensuring workers are trained in proper fall protection practices and delivering high-quality and effective fall protection equipment.
Below are some of the frequently asked questions that safety managers have about the details of fall protection.
What Is the Best Method of Fall Protection?
The best method of fall protection is fall elimination. Finding alternative ways for workers to accomplish their work without needing to operate at heights ensures the worker never has the opportunity to fall. With the fall elimination approach, safety managers find creative solutions that keep workers safe. When that isn’t possible, fall restraint systems that prevent workers from being able to fall over an edge are the next best solution, especially when combined with guardrails and barricades.
What Height Is Fall Protection Required?
OSHA fall protection regulations require that fall protection systems be in place whenever construction workers are working at a height of six feet or more above the ground below. The type of fall protection system required depends on the type of work being done. If it’s work on scaffolding, roofs or slopes, then guardrails must be installed, or fall restraint or arrest systems must be worn.
Further height restrictions come into play when employees are working around dangerous equipment that they could be struck by or fall into. Examples of dangerous equipment include machinery with gears, pulleys or belts or open vats of dangerous material like acid or other chemical agents. In these cases, fall protection is required no matter the height.
When Is Fall Protection PPE Necessary?
Fall protection personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn whenever a worker is working at heights of six feet or more and there are no guardrail systems, barricades or nets in place. In these cases, fall protection PPE, including anchors, connectors and harnesses, takes the place of the guardrail.
OSHA is also clear that fall protection PPE must be worn even when a worker isn’t working directly on a leading edge. If they’re working on any kind of platform or surface that’s six feet above the level below, they need fall protection PPE.
What Are the Two Types of Fall Protection?
There are two broad categories of fall protection systems — passive and active. Passive fall protection equipment is always static, fixed or unmoving. It doesn’t interact directly with the worker in that it’s not equipment that the worker wears or uses. Passive fall protection includes guardrail systems and barricades designed to prevent falling over a leading edge.
Active fall protection directly interacts with the workers. These include fall restraint and arrest systems that the worker physically wears and manipulates themselves.
What Is a Personal Fall Arrest System?
A personal fall arrest system is composed of all the equipment needed to achieve the fall arrest method of fall protection. Fall arrest systems prevent a fallen worker from hitting the ground or the next level below where they’re working. In the event that a fall does occur and couldn’t have been prevented, fall arrest systems are the last line of defense in saving the worker from injury or fatality.
Personal fall arrest systems are designed so that the total extended length of the equipment allows the worker to fall within a permissible fall clearance. The fall clearance leaves a minimum amount of distance between the fully extended fallen worker and the next nearest obstruction below.
What Are the Components of a Fall Arrest System?
Personal fall arrest systems are made up of specific components that allow the system to function properly and keep the worker safe. To remember the components of a personal fall arrest system, follow the ABC acronym:
- A — Anchorage and anchorage connector
- B — Bodywear, such as a harness or belt
- C — Connecting devices, such as a lanyard or lifeline
Different companies manufacture and distribute the different components of fall arrest systems. When purchasing fall arrest systems, it’s important to select equipment that’s specifically rated for a high enough capacity as required by OSHA.
What Is the Difference Between Fall Restraint And Fall Arrest?
Fall restraint is a fall prevention method of fall protection. These systems are designed to not allow a worker to be able to fall over an edge. They restrict the worker’s movement or position the worker’s body in a way that limits their ability to reach a leading edge.
Fall arrest systems, however, activate once a worker has actually fallen. They suspend a fallen worker in mid-air, above the next nearest obstruction, preventing them from being seriously injured.
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Safety managers understand that they need the best equipment to keep their workers safe. Effective and reliable safety equipment must be expertly engineered and tested to ensure it can withstand tough conditions and save lives.
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