Falls Leading Cause of Death

Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. In addition to falls from scaffolding, there are falls from open-sided floors or through floor openings. Falls from as little as six feet can cause serious lost-time accidents and even death. OSHA 29 CFR Part 1926, subpart M is the primary source of information for these types of hazards. To prevent falls, guard open-sided floors and platforms six feet or more above ground.

If a worker can fall six feet or more onto a lower level, some form of fall protection must be provided. It is the employer’s responsibility to guard the danger and implement a fall protection system to protect the worker. Where and when is fall, protection required? The answer is that fall protection is required when workers are performing the following work:

  • Roofing
  • Bricklaying
  • Excavating
  • Wall Openings
  • Walkways and Ramps
  • Residential Construction
  • Concrete Forms and Rebar
  • Open Sides, Edges, and Holes

Prior to choosing fall protection for hazards on the building site, it is important to know it consists of four options:

  • Guardrails
  • Safety Nets
  • Monitors
  • Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS)

In addition to falling off an object, a worker could step onto and break through skylights and other openings on roofs, the floor, and above the ground. These skylights and openings must be protected if more than six feet above the ground. On sites, holes in the floors must be covered completely and securely. If the cover isn’t available, the hole can be protected with a guardrail. It is necessary to use a PFAS when working on formwork or rebar. This is because there is a high risk of a worker falling onto the rebar and being impaled. To prevent this, protruding rebar must be covered or capped. The cap referred to here is a plastic cap that has a surface larger than the rebar that is installed over the tip of rebar to prevent the impaling.

Guardrails are handrails used to steady a worker while they work on ramps, runways, and other walkways where the employee can fall six feet or more to the ground. Guardrails consist of a top rail between 38 and 42 inches off the bottom surface, toeboards at least 3 ½ inches and a mid-rail in between. If working on a roof, tethers or restraints can be used to prevent workers from reaching the edge, thereby preventing falls. Safety nets can also be used to catch workers if they fall.

Safety nets should be hung as close as possible, but no more than 30 feet below the work area. Falls of more than 30 feet can result in workers injured by landing in the net. As noted earlier, it may be better to install a safety net below the workers to catch them if they fall. In 29 CFR 1926.502, it states that “safety nets shall be installed with sufficient clearance under them to prevent contact with the surface or structures below when subjected to an impact force equal to the drop test specified in OSHA 1926”.

Monitors can also be used. These are fellow workers that watch the locations of employees and stop them from getting close to the edge. This is the least desirable of all the systems because it relies on a worker to pay attention. There is usually a line of flags placed several feet back from the edge to help the monitor identify when a worker gets too close to the edge.

PFAS is comprehensive fall prevention that consists of an anchorage, lifeline, and body harness. Anchorage points secure the worker to a fixed object. The PFAS is harnessed in the worker’s upper back. If the worker falls, an arrest system slows and stops the falling worker before he or she strikes the ground. The anchor must be independent of any platform anchorage and capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per person on the PFAS. Lifelines are ropes that can slow and hold the fallen worker. Back belts are never acceptable replacements for PFAS. A body belt is fastened at the waist and connected at the front waist of the worker. If used by a falling employee there is no arrest system to slow the worker and when the belt catches, the worker would likely break their back. Body belts are used to hold a worker at elevation and should not be expected to do anything else.

If an employee falls and is saved by a PFAS or a net, he or she will need to be rescued. You cannot simply pick the person up; the human body is dead weight at this point and would take lots of effort to pull up on a rope. An emergency preparedness plan must be in place that includes procedures for obtaining help from local emergency authorities like the fire department or emergency medical services. Early coordination is required between the construction company and the local authorities to ensure that the local authorities can rescue a worker after a fall and, in fact, will respond. Some emergency organizations are not capable of performing a fall rescue, and others won’t perform the rescue because of legal restrictions. If an emergency organization is found that can and will help, it is important to invite them for a site visit to ensure the emergency personnel is familiar with the location before an emergency occurs.


The best person to prevent a fall is the worker; however, they must know what to do to keep from falling. Employers must let the workers know they want them to speak up when other workers are not using fall protection when they should. It is the company that must provide fall protection training. The training is to teach the worker how to recognize and minimize risks. The training must include fall hazards, protection systems, and fall protection devices. The employer must have a competent person appointed to oversee the preparation and use of fall protection. The competent person must have training that will prepare them to fulfill the duties as the competent person on a project where fall protection is needed. Employers must also provide training to workers who will assist in the use of fall protection. Workers must be trained again if the conditions change or workers demonstrate behavior that indicates they aren’t using proper procedures.

In all cases, it is important to document the content of the training as well as dates and times of training. A performance examination should also be used to verify the desired learning took place. The best practice is to have workers and trainers sign a roster to certify the training. Keep all training records for five years.


The costs associated with a fall can break a company and ruin the lives of workers and their families. Fall protection systems and work practices must be in place before workers start to work six feet or more above ground level to prevent falls. Some alternatives can be used. Workers can perform work at ground level with prefabricated items on the ground and lift them into place with a crane. This can reduce the time working at an elevation, which reduces the risk. A lift can also be used to raise workers to the work area. Whatever method is used to control the hazards of fall protection is time and money well spent. OSHA has developed an entire web page to address fall protection that is a solid place to find information. The URL is https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/fallprotection/.

About Fred Fanning Author

Fred Fanning currently writes biweekly on his blog fredefanningauthor.com. His published works include the peer-reviewed book Basic Safety Administration-A Handbook for the New Safety Specialist. Fred also authored two editions of the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training and Documentation Principles that was published in the bestselling Safety Professional Handbook and the Safety Professional Handbook Management Applications. He coauthored the peer-reviewed chapter Safety Training with Christine Fiori, Ph.D., PE, published in the bestselling Construction Safety Management and Engineering, second edition edited by Darryl C. Hill, Ph.D., CSP. Fred also has several self-published books. He has a series called Fred’s Safety Shorts. This is a collection of twelve books on topics related to safety published with Kindle Direct Publishing. Fred self-published another six books using both CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and Kindle Direct Publishing. He has authored fifty-eight articles in various publications on the topics of safety and health and project management. Fred has earned several writing awards for his non-fiction work. Fred has two novels A Walk Among the Dead and Mystery at Devil’s Elbow.
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