The number one most cited OSHA violation in U.S. companies is fall protection compliance. Falls from heights are dangerous and a frequent cause of injuries, hospital trips, and worker’s compensation payouts. This is especially true because many industries have fall hazards on their worksites: think of how many different jobs would require a worker to be more than six feet off the ground or above another level or other hazard. Industrial, construction, and tower-climbing jobs, among many other industries, require being mindful of fall hazards. A fall protection program is a crucial business decision to prevent injuries, save lives, and save money, and fall protection equipment is a necessary part of these programs.
Fall protection equipment is the PPE that gets used to prevent a worker from hitting the ground or a lower level when working at height or in a confined space. This equipment is also designed and built with engineering and materials that will help minimize a worker’s exposure to fall arrest forces, which while preferable to the injuries from an unprotected fall are still not ideal. All of the components of a fall arrest or fall protection system are designed to withstand the weight of a worker, the force of the fall, and any other job hazards, but once used, need to be retired from service and replaced, as they can only save one life one time. OSHA requires that workers use personal fall protection at various heights depending on their job, and employers are responsible for providing a reasonably safe worksite for their employees, which includes fall protection equipment and controls.
A lot of this equipment is used to either stop falls from happening or arrest falls in progress. Typically, a personal fall arrest system will include a body harness, anchorage, a connector, and a means of connection that’s some combination of a lanyard, deceleration device, and lifeline. Passive fall protection equipment will look more like guardrails, warning lines, or positioning devices that keep workers from approaching the fall hazard at all.
Rescue and descent equipment also falls under the banner of fall protection, as you’ll need a way to retrieve workers once they’ve fallen and been saved by their PPE, or in situations where self-rescue isn’t possible. There’s also other gear, like dropped object prevention, hard hats, and other accessories that might be necessary in different industries, but fall protection equipment in general means either keeping a worker restrained from reaching a fall hazard or stopping a worker in free fall from hitting a lower level or the ground.
Your fall protection equipment might operate differently depending on your industry, job hazards, and particular worksite conditions. PPE is very site-specific: one worksite might need their safety equipment to be anchored to a wall, but others might have the ability to attach their lanyards to a trolley system overhead. Broadly, though, there are three different categories of fall protection.
Fall prevention, also called passive protection, creates a barrier between workers and fall hazards that prevents them from reaching the hazard at all. Fall restraint systems use a tie-off system to keep workers from reaching the hazard in places where fall prevention isn’t possible. Finally, fall arrest systems will use a tie-off system to stop a fall in progress in areas where fall prevention and fall restraint aren’t practical or possible.
Of course, the best forms of fall protection are those that are well suited for your industry, comply with the appropriate standards, and will get used consistently. The gear should be lightweight, comfortable, easy to adjust, and easy to put on, wear, and work in when deployed properly, which will help ensure that workers are using it properly. Features like stand-up D-rings, flexible webbing, and other features can help with the comfort and ease of use. If your PPE needs to be flame resistant, chemical resistant, arc flash resistant, or otherwise have a specific property on top of preventing injuries from falls, look for fall protection equipment that meets all of the appropriate OSHA, ANSI, and industry-specific standards. Employers need to know what types of fall protection products are available, which ones are suitable for the on-the-job hazards found during a worksite inspection and evaluation, and make sure that workers are carefully trained on their use.
Using the hierarchy of fall protection will help you figure out what system to use for fall protection. The hierarchy will help you determine the safest possible solution to worksite problems like fall hazards. If the fall hazard can be completely eliminated, that’s the best possible solution. If you can’t, invest in equipment that offers passive protection, like guardrails or skylight screens. Working in restraints is the next step and requires tying off the worker so that they can’t get to the fall hazard at all. And if none of these controls are possible, fall arrest systems will halt a fall that’s in progress.
Whichever fall arrest systems and accessories you pick, make sure that they comply with the standards and meet your industry’s criteria and standard practices for fall protection. Review the relevant OSHA policies for your industry as part of your workplace assessment: reference OSHA CFR 1910 for industry, 1926 for construction, and 1915 for maritime work. If you use voluntary consensus standards like ANSI or CSA, look for those ratings as well. When you buy fall protection equipment from PK Safety, you’re sure to get gear that complies with the standards you’re looking for: ask a safety expert for recommendations on what works best for you.
However, the best system isn’t only based on the equipment you use. It’s also crucial that you have training on fall protection laid out in your written fall protection program. Work with employees to figure out what equipment and procedures you need to modify or eliminate hazards. Make sure that everyone is trained on how to use the equipment by a competent person and that they’re all familiar with rescue plans. Providing the equipment can only do so much without a workplace culture of making sure that everyone makes it back home safely at the end of the shift.
For general industry applications, any time someone is working at a height of greater than four feet, it’s considered a fall hazard. If you’re in a shipyard, that elevation is five feet; construction is six feet, and long shoring operations require harnesses at eight feet. Fall protection PPE is required in situations where guardrails and other controls aren’t practical; at elevations of more than five feet; over water; and when working from two-point suspended scaffolding. There are some situations when positioning device systems on restraint lifelines can be used to keep workers from falling off an unguarded edge, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Body belts are a form of support that circle the waist. These are used for worker positioning and fall prevention, but they must never be used for fall arrest and cannot replace a harness. A full body harness is designed to distribute fall arrest forces across the shoulders, thighs, and pelvis, which a body belt can’t do. For working at heights, this type of fall protection harness is the only option for safety.
When figuring out which lanyard you should choose, don’t forget to take total fall distance into account and get the precise measurements of the work area. Without knowing how much room you’re really working with before purchasing a harness, lanyard, and connecting means you’re running the risk of not giving the system enough space to do its life-saving work. Factor in about six feet for lanyard length, 3 ½ feet for the shock absorber deceleration, and three feet for the safety factor.