5 Dangerous Misconceptions About Fall Protection
Don't believe the informal fall protection rules that tend to circulate around jobsites - always follow the applicable regulations.
Although it exists solely for worker safety, fall protection is still a contentious topic on some worksites. Workers look at the past through rose-colored safety glasses and see a time when workers strode carefully atop girders, high above the city streets, kept safe by their careful footing. Some scoff at the requirement to wear harnesses and lanyards as overbearing and mollycoddling.
But the facts tell a different story.
Not only did those tough-as-nails workers in the past frequently fall and die on the job, but today's numbers are quite discouraging as well. In 2020, falls still made up over a third of construction fatalities in the United States (351 out or 1008), despite having some of the most stringent fall protection requirements in the world.
Zoom all the way and the staggering danger from falls is all the more apparent. In that same year, fall fatalities (occupational and otherwise) in the US numbered 42,114!
Many of the tragedies that make up that number involve people who did not have access to fall protection or the knowledge of how to use it effectively. But it nevertheless helps illustrate the overall magnitude of the hazard.
Since falls are such a deadly and omnipresent danger, we need to make an ongoing effort to educate everyone who is exposed to this hazard at work. And we can start by dispelling five persistent myths about the equipment that keeps workers safe at heights.
Fall Protection Equipment Is a Bigger Hazard Than the Height
Anyone who has had to put on fall protection equipment knows it can be a nuisance and can slow down tasks to some degree. Donning it is a slight inconvenience, sure, but there's no reason to think that it's riskier than leaving it off.
That inconvenience can also be minimized by selecting the right fall protection. By considering the nature of the work, the number of workers, and the layout of the work area, you can provide every employee with equipment that won't significantly compromise their movement. For example, a self-retracting lanyard (SRL) allows the user to travel a little further from the anchor point than, say, a travel restraint.
Another concern is suspension trauma and orthostatic intolerance, both of which are injuries that can be sustained from dangling in a harness. While these are very real hazards, they will be considered in any proper fall protection plan. Fall protection involves more than just donning the equipment. It will also include provisions for a timely rescue in the case of a fall and require that trained personnel are available to perform such a rescue.
In any case, the risks that come from being suspended in a harness are far lower than those associated with a significant fall.
(Learn more in A Primer on Rescuing Fallen Workers)
Fall Protection Is Only for Serious Heights
“They make you put on a harness if you get on a step stool!”
That's the kind of complaint you might hear about the safety rules on some worksites. In reality, depending on the industry, it's a height of 4 to 6 feet that triggers a requirement for fall protection (although some states that don't follow federal OSHA mandate fall protection at even lower elevations).
Admittedly, 4 feet of elevation doesn't feel like a significant hazard. But our perception of the hazard don't inform the rules - the numbers do. And the numbers bear out this requirement. In the US, 136 fatalities and over 127,000 injuries in 2020 were were categorized as "falls on the same level." Clearly, it doesn't take much height for something bad to happen.
Beyond the height itself, there can also be other hazards underneath the unprotected edge. Even a minor fall can have serious consequences if you land on an open chemical container or a bin of rebar. In fact, OSHA accounts for this by adding the caveat that the minimum height doesn't apply if there is potential to fall on something potentially injurious.
The "6 Foot" or "Two Step" Rule
There is a misconception that if you are maintaining 6 feet of distance from the edge, you don't need to use fall protection. You could make the argument that it's safe to work in this way, but it doesn't matter - there's no 6 foot exemption in the regulations.
While there are differences between OSHA CFR 1910 (general industry) and 1926 (construction industry), neither of these regulations considers 6 feet a safe distance. In fact, the latter specifically states that “OSHA has determined that there is no safe distance from an unprotected side or edge that would render fall protection unnecessary.”
An interpretation from 1996 does, however, accommodate the idea of a safe working distance - somewhat. It states that trained workers on a low-slope roof (<10 degrees from horizontal) may work without fall protection if they can maintain 50-100 feet of distance from an unprotected edge. That's a far cry from two steps!
Even at this distance, it isn’t a compliant condition. It's a de minimis condition, meaning it’s not technically allowed, but won’t result in a citation.
Fall Protection Isn't Needed if There Is a Parapet
Anything acting as a guardrail has to meet the strength, height, and design requirements for a guardrail. A knee-high barrier or a few 2x4s nailed together isn’t going to cut it. The rail needs to be sturdy enough to withstand a force of 200 pounds at the top rail and it must not deflect under pressure below 39 inches.
Furthermore, the rail has to be more or less continuous (other than entries and stairways, which must still be adequately protected). The entire edge where a fall is possible needs to be protected if this strategy is to be used.
The only time a rope can be used as a barrier is when it is used only as a warning. Under certain conditions, a warning line that workers are prohibited to cross can be strung up 15 feet from the edge (or 6 feet for jobsites that fall under the "General Industry" regulations). The warning line itself has to be made of a material with a breaking strength of at least 500 pounds, be made visible with flags placed at 6-foot intervals, and be set up in such a way that it’s supporting stanchions can’t be knocked over with less than 16 pounds of force.
My Harness Is On and I'm Tied In - I Don't Have to Worry About It
Fall protection isn’t a "set it and forget it" application.
First of all, a good deal of knowledge and forethought is needed to set up fall protection to begin with. Do the anchors have the required strength (5,000 pounds per person)? Is all of the equipment is suitably maintained and inspected, then donned correctly? Has the clearance been determined to safely allow the personal fall arrest system to deploy properly? All of these things have to be considered before the work even starts.
Then, as the task proceeds, the worker needs to remain conscious of where the lanyard and anchor are. Since the lanyard is behind the user, it won't be in sight at all times. But there are many hazards on a construction site that could cut or abrade the lanyard, rendering it useless. Unless the worker is mindful of the lanyard's path and anything that might be in its way, their fall protection can become seriously compromised.
Workers who fall after wandering too far from their anchor point can find themselves in a pendular swing. This puts them at risk of swinging into objects or structures on the level below, which can result in serious injuries. This is especially important when using a self-retracting lanyard system, which allows a length of line to play out but locks under sudden, heavy tension. Such a system allows workers to move far from the overhead anchorage and create a swing. Wander far enough and you could swing directly into the ground.
Even when fall protection is set up perfectly, workers should remember that, even under the most ideal circumstances, falling is going to be unpleasant! Injury is still possible because the arresting force on the body is substantial. It is wise to avoid falls with a combination of controls and continuous awareness of both the hazardous height and the systems preventing the fall.
(Find out How to Choose Your Fall Protection Anchorage)
There are so many rules that apply to different situations, industries, and regions that it gets hard to know what is required. There are always many voices chiming in with what the rules are and what is unnecessary, based on half-remembered regulations and common practices.
Because of this, it is important to plan fall protection strategies for each site where fall hazards are present, and to ground those strategies in accepted fall protection standards.