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How the Fall Protection Hierarchy Is Saving Lives in Construction

By Kevin Kelpe, Contributor

Falls are the leading cause of fatality in construction, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction has more fatal falls than any other industry. In 2020, one in five workplace deaths occurred in the construction industry, and 1/3 of those deaths were due to a fall to a lower level.

OSHA has made it one of its top priorities to fight back against these troubling statistics, and their National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction is an example of this. During this annual campaign, OSHA and its partners attempt to raise awareness amongst workers and employers about fall hazards and best practices.

Besides raising awareness, OSHA also has strong regulations to combat workplace falls. Fortunately for those working in the industry, OSHA understands that construction is complex, and a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach doesn’t work. OSHA’s fall protection standard, 1926 Subpart M, reflects that.

Protecting your employees from a fall is a regulatory obligation, but when that obligation begins depends on the work they are performing. For example:

“29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1): Each employee on a walking/working surface with an unprotected side or edge which is six feet or more above a lower level must be protected from falling.”

The above applies to most workers and situations you’ll find on an average construction site, but not everything.

“29 CFR 1926.760(a)(1): Each employee engaged in a steel erection activity who is on a walking/working surface with an unprotected side or edge more than 15 feet must be protected from fall hazards.”

The height limit went from six feet to 15 feet as the work changed. That is why, as with any regulation, you must read the fall protection standard diligently to identify what applies to you.

It is the employer’s responsibility to identify and then eliminate or mitigate fall hazards in the workplace. If you have identified fall hazards in your workplace, the best method to address them is to apply the fall protection hierarchy.

What is the fall protection hierarchy?

The fall protection hierarchy is a ranked system of fall protection solutions that range from the most effective to the least. Once you have identified a fall hazard, you apply the controls from the most effective to the least until you have eliminated the hazard or reduced the risk to a reasonable level. Let’s explore this easy-to-apply and effective step-by-step method to eliminate fall hazards.

Hazard Elimination

The most effective way to prevent someone from falling is to eliminate the fall hazard. When doing a hazard assessment, ask, does this hazardous situation need to be there? Can we change the process in some way to remove the hazard altogether?

Passive Fall Protection

Creating a physical barrier between the workers and the fall hazard is the second most effective way to prevent falls. Things like a guardrail around a roof edge or a cover over a skylight are permanent, require no training or maintenance, and provide 24/7 protection.

Active Travel Restraint

Active travel restraints are the third most effective method and use personal protective equipment to restrict a worker’s range of movement. Think of it like a leash preventing the worker from being able to reach the fall hazard.

Active Fall Arrest

Near the bottom of the list, active fall arrest systems are one of the least effective methods to protect workers from a fall. Think of it like a seatbelt; to do its job, you must be in an accident. It is always safer to prevent an accident than to attempt to limit the damage once it has occurred.

Administrative Controls

Finally, administrative controls are the least effective way to prevent a fall. These rules attempt to change workers’ behavior but are ineffective because they are easily ignored or misunderstood.

When it comes to preventing serious injury and death from falls, you have three options. You can change the work, change the workplace, or change the worker. But employers should not only be concerned with their people falling but also consider what they might be dropping.

The Impact of Dropped Objects in Construction

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dropped objects killed 255 workers in the United States in 2016. Things like radios, hard hats, wrenches, pliers, and construction debris are commonly dropped accidentally and pose a significant hazard to workers below.

A single falling object can seriously injure or kill a construction worker, and it doesn’t have to weigh much to cause severe damage. In 2015 a New Jersey man delivering drywall to a construction site was fatally killed when he was struck in the head by a 1 lb tape measure that fell from the 50th floor. Unfortunately, tragedies like this are far too common in construction, which is why employers and workers must take preventative action to stop dropped objects.

What can you do to stop dropped objects?

Many still don’t understand the danger that dropped objects pose to worker safety within construction. Therefore, one of the most significant first steps to prevent dropped objects is educating your workers on the risks. After that, securing tools and equipment, storing materials away from edges, and installing safety nets can make a huge impact.

Finally, installing guardrails and toe boards is another effective way to prevent dropped objects. Construction sites can get messy, with tools and materials left in piles on the ground. You can significantly reduce the potential to accidentally kick those items over the edge if you have a barrier like a toe board there to stop it.

When it comes to workplace falls and dropped objects, gravity can have severe consequences if not managed correctly. Therefore, a business must be proactive if they want to provide a safe workplace for their employees, maintain regulatory compliance, and avoid costly and reputation-ruining accidents. CS

Kevin Kelpe is a workshop facilitator and instructor from Diversified Fall Protection. He is a credentialed continuing ed provider for AIA and IIBEC and has issued hundreds of learning units to architects, engineers, and safety professionals. His live courses and webinars focus on fall protection codes, standards, and solutions to protect window cleaners, maintenance professionals, and other workers at-height. Learn why conducting a fall hazard assessment of your facility with the fall protection professionals can help you at www.fallprotect.com/solutions-by-market-segments/construction.

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