Preventing Falls from Heights

The risk of falling is no joke to an employee or employer because it is one of the most common causes of serious workplace injuries and deaths. Most of us are used to taking precautions to keep public-facing areas free of debris and clear of ice and snow in order to prevent the typical trip- or slip-and-fall. However, your employees could be at risk for falls from overhead platforms, elevated work stations, or into holes in floors or walls.


OSHA has standards for the heights at which fall protection is required. Construction standards require fall protection at 6′. However, general industry standards call for protection at 4′.


If an employee is working above any kind of dangerous equipment or machines, fall protection is required regardless of the height.


Four basic components to fall protection

Accidents can happen, but you can help to reduce your risk by establishing a fall prevention protocol that does four things:


1. Proper worker training
2. Selecting appropriate equipment for your specific work environment
3. Ensuring that all equipment is properly fitted to each individual who will be using it
4. Frequent equipment inspections


Fall prevention guidelines

An employer is required to take the following precautions in order to prevent workplace falls from heights:


1. A railing (top and mid-way) and toe-board or floor hole cover must be in place for every floor hole that could accidentally be walked into by an employee.
2. Every elevated, open-sided platform, floor, runway, or overhead storage mezzanine must have guard rails (top and mid-way) and toe-boards.
3. If an employee could fall into or onto a machine or equipment (including items like vats of acid or other materials), there must be a top and mid-way guardrail and toe-board, regardless of height.
4. Depending on the worksite, you might also need to provide a safety harness and line, safety nets, and stair and hand railings.
5. Working areas must be free of known dangers.
6. Floors must be clean and kept as dry as possible.
7. Personal protective equipment must be provided at no cost to workers.
8. Each worker must be trained about hazards in a language that she or he is able to clearly understand.
9. Access points for entering cabs or the rear of a box truck or tractor/trailer must be in good condition with handles and secure footing. There must be three points of contact when entering or exiting a truck, which means that three of four limbs must be in contact with the vehicle at all times (in other words, two hands/one foot or two feet/one hand).


Stair rails

If a stairway has four or more risers or rises more than 30 inches, a stair rail must be on each unprotected side or edge. Stair rail systems and handrails must be surfaced so as to prevent puncture injuries and to keep clothes from snagging. Any handrail must provide adequate handhold for an employee to prevent falls. OSHA offers specific measurement requirements for placement of stair rails.


Structural elements that include midrails, screens, mesh, or intermediate vertical members must exist between the top rail and stairway steps to the stair rail system. If there is a midrail, it must be midway between the top of the stair rail and the steps.


Personal Protective Equipment used to prevent falls

If your employees will be engaging in any work that could risk a fall in a situation where railings, alone, are not suitable for fall protection, it’s essential that they are properly outfitted with the appropriate personal protective equipment for the job. This could include body belts or saddles, descent devices, full-body harnesses, energy absorbers or lanyards, and personal fall arrest systems (PFAS). These guidelines should be used to be sure that the protective equipment is properly used and maintained:


1. Equipment must be inspected before each use.
2. If there is any doubt about the equipment’s maintenance or fitness, don’t use it. Replace any defective equipment immediately.
3. If a fall occurs, all ropes and other involved equipment must be replaced.
4. A trained person should inspect and certify fall arrest equipment at least once a year. Be sure that records of inspections and approvals are maintained.
5. If a lanyard’s arresting force could cause injury, include an energy absorber.
6. Follow manufacturer’s warnings and guidelines for device purpose, hazard warnings, stretch distances, fitting and adjusting, cleaning and storage, purpose and function.


Just as you take care of machines or technology used in the workplace, you must maintain safety equipment like a PFAS. Basic care can prolong the life of the equipment, in addition to ensuring that it’s at optimal functioning to keep employees injury-free. If you’re using harnesses, buckles, belts, or other safety straps, there are a few basic maintenance tasks that will contribute to keeping them in good condition:


  • Surface dirt can be cleaned with a damp cloth and water. If you need more thorough cleansing, a mild solution of water and commercial soap will work, as well.
  • Webbing can be rinsed in water. Belts should be dried with clean cloths and hung to dry.
  • Belts and other equipment should be kept out of direct sunlight or heat.
  • Storage should be in a clean, dry area. Prevent warping or distortion by keeping equipment free from sunlight, fumes, corrosive material, vibration, or sharp edges.
  • All hardware should be inspected for cracks, bends, rust, deformation, or other defects. Hardware should not be cutting into or damaging any belts or harnesses.
  • Friction buckles should not slip or have sharp buckle edges. If tongue buckle holes become worn or elongated, it’s time for a replacement.

Bear in mind that it’s the responsibility of the employer to train every employee to recognize fall hazards related to ladders and stairs. Each individual must understand the nature of the hazards in the environment, along with the correct procedure for building, maintaining, and disassembling any ladders or other fall protection systems. Each person must also be trained to construct, use, place, and maintain stairways and ladders.


By following these basic guidelines, you can help keep your workforce free from preventable injuries. For more information, please also visit Cove Risk Services’ recent article on ladder safety in the workplace.