While it might appear obvious that any elevated surface with unprotected edges poses a fall risk if not properly secured with fall prevention systems (fall arrest systems), there are many factors that need to be considered when ensuring a workplace is safe from fall risk.
These factors include:
What causes the risk?
Where is the risk and/or are the multiple places that pose a fall risk?
Is there currently fall prevention in place?
Is that fall prevention compliant with current local, state and federal regulations?
Are there materials being used that increase the risk of fall?
While this is not an exhaustive list, it demonstrates the many details that go into properly preventing falls from an elevated surface in the workplace. And with the increasing risk of severe—or even fatal—injuries resulting from falls in the workplace, it is imperative that fall prevention is not left to chance or to an outdated or unregulated system.
Falls Are Costly in More Ways than One The greatest cost from falls is undoubtedly the injury or even death of workers. The mental and physical toll a severe fall can take on an employee and their coworkers can be incredibly steep and lead to more far-reaching consequences, including feeling unsafe at, or distrusting of, the workplace. This can lead to decreased productivity and increased employee turnover.
In addition to the mental and emotional costs of a fall is the financial cost, which can add up quickly for employers. In fact, according to the CDC, workers’ compensation and medical costs associated with occupational falls in the U.S. have been estimated at $70 billion annually. For any workplace, the cost to compensate a worker for a fall—plus pay any potential fines for unsafe or lacking fall prevention—is reason enough to invest in proper fall prevention education and systems.
Industries Most at Risk for Falls Certain industries have a much higher risk of fall from elevated surfaces than others, including construction and extraction, agriculture, electrical/utility trades, transportation, materials moving and cleaning and maintenance. In fact, according to data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, 261,930 workers in these industries (both government and private sector) missed one or more days of work due to a fall injury.
For example, electricians scaling an electric pole to repair damage caused by a lightning strike needs proper equipment to keep themselves safe for the duration of their work. Similarly, a janitorial staff person who is going to climb onto a ledge to clean a window needs proper equipment and to follow the appropriate safety measures to prevent a fall.
Ultimately, all workplaces that have employees working on elevated surfaces need to be aware of the risk of fall and how to prevent it. This is key to ensuring worker safety and business regulatory compliance.
What is most important, though, is not thinking of fall prevention from elevated surfaces with unprotected edges as a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. No two workplaces are exactly alike, which means that their fall prevention systems need to be tailored to their specific needs and causes of risk. Without proper educational tools, creating and maintaining fall prevention is no simple task.
Fortunately, there are some foundational fall prevention systems that businesses can customize to their unique needs to instill more safety and risk mitigation in their workplaces.
Common Sources of Fall Risk in Workplaces: Elevated Surfaces and Scaffolding As previously mentioned, elevated work surfaces pose a major threat to worker safety due to the risk of falls.
Examples of these surfaces can include:
This list does not touch on all elevated work scenarios that create a fall risk for workers, but it helps give a general idea of just how prevalent this risk is. According to OSHA standards, fall risk is present in any situation where someone is working in a location more than six feet off the ground. However, this does vary by industry, and some industries or workplaces need to have fall protection in place when workers are four feet off the ground or more.
Out of the list above, scaffolding is one of the greatest sources of fall risk, particularly in construction, maintenance or warehouse work. Scaffolding is a temporary, elevated work surface that holds people, materials or both. Scaffolding is most commonly used in construction and maintenance work but provides worker assistance in several industries.
There are two general types of scaffolding:
Suspended scaffolding: one or more platforms suspended overhead by rope or other non-rigid supports
Supported scaffolding: one or more platforms suspended from the ground by rigid support frames made from materials such as metal or wood
While it may seem odd that a tool meant to help workers accomplish tasks safely off the ground is actually the source of many workplace falls, it makes sense when one understands the intricacies of building sound scaffolding and realizes they vary by industry like construction, general workplace, so forth.
For a general idea of requirements for fall-safe scaffolding, here are a few factors to consider:
Has the scaffolding been constructed according to manufacturer instructions?
Are guardrails properly placed on unprotected edges?
Are the platform bases sufficiently strong enough to support the workers and materials that will be on them?
Keep in mind that this is in addition to the scaffolding being able to support its own weight.
Weight-bearing requirements for supported and suspended scaffolding types differ, so one must make sure they understand the requirements for their specific scaffolding type.
Is the scaffolding regularly maintained between uses?
Proper take-down and set-up procedures must be followed every time.
Is the person selecting and constructing the scaffolding appropriate for the task?
This is only scratching the surface of scaffolding use. To ensure proper protocols are being followed and maintained, it is important to have the proper tools and education at your disposal to get the job done correctly and safely to mitigate fall risk.
Common Fall Prevention Tactics There are several measures one can take to help prevent falls in the workplace. To determine the best measures to take for any given work environment, there must first be a thorough review of the potential fall hazard (like an elevated work surface with unprotected edges) to make a fall prevention plan best tailored to that specific situation, project and work zone.
While completing this review, it’s important to consider:
How far off the ground will someone be working?
Will there be more than one person working simultaneously?
What materials will be used (if any) and need to be accounted for?
Will there be potential for increased slip risk due to environmental factors, such as outdoor work or the types of material being used?
Will any dangerous machinery be used?
Will this be a workspace that requires scaffolding or ladders for support?
Once a review is complete, planning for fall prevention can begin. Some simple, yet effective, fall prevention tactics are:
Keep the workspace clear and free from clutter: This is especially important while working on elevated surfaces, as a trip and fall could result in much more severe injury than from the ground.
Properly secure all unprotected edges: For any height more than four to six feet from the ground, if a worker trips and falls, there must be something in place to stop that person from falling off that location.
Utilize safety harnesses and lines: When unable to use a ladder or scaffolding for support, a properly fitting harness and line are needed.
Incorporate fall hazard warning signage: Keep workers on alert with signs indicating fall risk. This can help reduce the chance of accidental falls from workers simply not paying attention.
Inspect fall prevention equipment before each use: Like any equipment, fall prevention equipment can lose effectiveness over time. Regular and thorough inspections can help ensure its efficacy or if it needs to be replaced.
It is important to note this list only just scratches the surface of all the detailed regulations around fall prevention for worker safety. For example, installing a guardrail on a surface with unprotected edges might appear straightforward, but many factors need to be considered, and standards met, to ensure it will truly protect workers from a fall. Additionally, there are different regulations for different industries, which brings in another layer of complexity to the task of preventing falls.
What’s Next in Fall Prevention? Seeking expert, professional help—instead of trying to piece together a fall prevention system—is the safest choice for workers in any industry. National Safety Compliance (NSC) is a great partner for all things related to safe working environments, offering many resources to help businesses stay up-to-date on the latest in fall prevention tactics and regulations.
NSC’s Fall Protection Bundle includes everything a business needs to understand and implement proper fall prevention protocols. Utilizing a video kit, training booklets and an in-depth manual, this bundle will help businesses keep their workers safe, while helping to reduce time and money lost due to worker accidents and injuries.
Are OSHA violations still a major concern in the United States?
Unfortunately, yes. While it’s true that the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has played a significant role in improving employee safety standards, many workplaces are still deemed unsafe.
For example, in 2021, OSHA health and safety inspectors carried out 24,333 federal inspections and discovered that 4,764 workers had died on the job in the previous year. The industries that accounted for nearly half of the fatal occupational injuries were:
We’ve written this post to assist both employers and employees identify and fix safety violations. We’ll explore the 10 most commonly violated OSHA standards as reported by OSHA inspectors and discuss ways you, as an employer, can address these concerns.
1. Fall Protection (29 CFR 1926.501)
According to the Bureau of Labor’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, there were 850 fatal falls recorded in the U.S. in 2021, up 5.6% from 2020. Falls, slips, and trips in construction and extraction occupations accounted for 370 of these 2021 fatalities.
You can reduce the likelihood of these incidents by adhering to the OSHA Fall Protection standard. This is a standard with two main requirements for employers:
Provision of fall protection systems such as guardrails, safety nets, personal fall arrest systems
Provision of fall protection training to employees working at elevated heights greater than six feet
In order to comply with this standard, employers must do the following two things:
Develop and implement a lockout/tagout program
Teach employees the correct techniques to control hazardous energy
This standard is most often violated when employees:
Fail to train workers in general LOTO procedures
Fail to establish energy control programs
Fail to carry out periodic workplace machinery inspections
Regular LOTO training goes a long way in mitigating machinery-related accidents. Ensure your workers receive quality Lockout/Tagout safety training thanks to our comprehensive resources.
8. Eye and Face Protection (29 CFR 1926.102)
Workplaces can become dangerous because of sparks, flying debris, and various hazardous materials. These often cause eye injuries, which is why the OSHA Eye and Face Protection standard was created.
It mandates employers to:
Furnish workers with necessary eye and face protection
Train employees how to correctly wear and use this PPE
For more information on how to protect employee’s eyes and faces on the job site visit our National Safety Compliance website eye safety page.
9. Powered Industrial Trucks (29 CFR 1910.178)
Industrial trucks are used across different industries and workplaces in the U.S. However, their use must be regulated and accompanied by training on safe workplace utility.
The OSHA Powered Industrial Trucks standard provides guidance on what safety precautions employers are meant to put in place to safeguard their employees. One requirement is to train workers on the proper operation of powered industrial trucks.
Prevent driving accidents and remind workers of safe driving practices with our driving safety posters, games, and video kits.
10. Machinery and Machine Guarding (29 CFR 1910.212)
With workplaces like manufacturing plants and industries that are powered by machinery, it was pivotal to develop a standard that related specifically to machinery. That’s where we get the OSHA Machinery and Machine Guarding standard.
This standard is designed to teach workers how to prevent injuries from moving parts while working.
Violations of this standard typically revolve around employers failing to train their employees about how to safely operate machinery and avoid being injured by moving machine parts.
Fostering a safe workplace begins with training and is preserved with educational posters like our Machine Safeguarding resources.
The Bottom Line
Employers and employees have an important role to play in preventing and reducing OSHA violations. Improving the workplace and making it safer and more secure is a team affair. A careful study of these standards and examination of your own current practices doesn’t just protect your workers and save lives, but it can lead to a more functional, effective, and profitable workplace altogether.
Even in the safest workplaces, accidents happen. Slips, trips, and falls account for over one-third of all workplace injuries across all industries. Fortunately, these types of injuries are also some of the most preventable — if you have the right procedures and fall protection gear in place.
Fall protection is mandated when workers are exposed to different heights, which vary by industry:
General workplaces: Four feet
Shipyards: Five feet
Construction: Six feet
Longshoring operations: Eight feet
When working above dangerous machinery: Always, regardless of potential fall distance
And this isn’t just in reference to people working above ground: even workers at ground level are at risk when floor openings are present.
There are many different types of fall protection equipment, both temporary and permanent, that can keep workers safe in these scenarios. Here’s a rundown of the main types of fall protection used today, along with some resources for learning more about each.
Workers use scaffolding to temporarily get access to buildings or machines for construction, repair, or maintenance. These temporary platforms feature planks of different lengths and widths designed to hold both workers and materials.
There are a number of OSHA regulations for scaffolds to help ensure they’re strong and stable enough to support workers and materials. Here are the highlights:
Scaffolds must support their own weight and at least 4 times the maximum load that will be applied to it.
Platforms must be at least 18 inches wide, and they must include guardrails or fall arrest systems for workers.
Space between platforms and uprights can’t be more than one inch wide
Both supported and suspended scaffolds have their own unique requirements.
Shore and lean-to scaffolds are prohibited.
For scaffolds 10 feet or higher, workers are required to use fall protection equipment like a personal fall arrest system or a guardrail system.
Other Types of Fall Protection
For some jobs, like window washing or HVAC repair, it would be unreasonable to build scaffolding to protect workers at elevation. There are a number of other types of fall protection gear, including:
Guardrails. Guardrails can be temporary or permanent, but both keep workers away from dangerous edges or holes.
Fall arrest system. A fall arrest system stops a fall, and consists of a body harness, anchor, and a lifeline connecting the two. A fall restriction system is similar, but often includes another component, like a bosun’s chair, that serves as a work positioning system.
Travel-restraint system. These systems keep workers from getting too close to an unprotected edge. In a travel-restraint system, a worker is attached to a body harness, which connects to a lanyard that may move freely along an anchored line — keeping the worker in the safe zone.
Best Practices for Keeping Workers Safe
Regardless of your industry, there are a number of measures you can take to prevent slips and trips — whether your workers are routinely high above the ground (or not). They are:
Keep work areas clean, dry, and free of debris.
Use railings, floor covers, and toe boards to prevent workers from falling into holes.
Install guardrails and toe boards against open-sided platforms.
Ensure rooftop safety by using temporary or permanent guardrails and anchors for personal fall protection.