Don't Become Another Statistic: Work Safely at Heights

The hazards of working at heights are exacerbated when crew members rush to complete the job or have limited literacy levels.

In Alabama, a framing crew member who was moving a roof truss into place while supporting himself on an 8-inch wide structural beam fell 27 feet to the ground inside the partially constructed building. The native Mexican laborer, who understood little English, was not wearing or using personal fall protection equipment. An 8-foot by 4-foot truss fell at the same time, striking the worker's head when he hit the ground. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

In North Carolina, a native Spanish-speaking laborer who was working on the second floor of a twostory home under construction fell through a 64-inch by 12-foot-long floor opening to a cement floor 10 feet below. The worker, who spoke very limited English, was not using fall protection, and there was no documentation that he had been trained in safety issues. He died of severe head trauma.

And in Ohio, an OSHA compliance officer who made an unannounced visit to a preschool under construction found about half of the 80-foot trusses being installed were not braced properly. Some of the workers were on the high beams, and some were inside the building. The crew members were ordered to stop work immediately and to get away from the work site. Ten minutes later, the building's roof fell in and the walls collapsed.

These incidents are among the many fatalities, injuries, and "near misses" that occur in construction each year when working from heights. According to "The Construction Chart Book, Fourth Edition," published by The Center for Construction Research and Training, falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries and the second most common cause of nonfatal injuries in construction. In 2005, 32 percent of 1,243 work-related deaths from injuries in construction were due to falls. From 2003-2005, 61 percent of fatal falls from suspended scaffolds and 53 percent of falls from aerial lifts were caused by the collapse of the scaffold or lift, "The Construction Chart Book" notes. (See the accompanying charts for additional data.)

Working from heights—whether it is on a roof or from a scaffold, aerial lift, crane, or ladder—is clearly hazardous. These hazards are exacerbated when crew members are in a rush to complete the job, have not had adequate safety training, are not using the appropriate protective equipment, or have limited literacy levels. Language issues can also be a major barrier to providing effective training and communication about job site hazards and their prevention. A June 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report notes that overall in the United States, 11,303 Hispanic workers died from job-related injuries between 1992 and 2006. The death rate for Hispanic workers was consistently higher than the rate for all U.S. workers. Contributing factors to the higher job-related deaths of Hispanic workers, the report states, include inadequate knowledge and control of recognized safety hazards and inadequate training and supervision of workers, often complicated by different languages and literacy levels.

Protecting Your Workers

OSHA fall protection standards for construction (29 CFR 1926.500-503, which can be accessed at require the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems whenever employees are exposed to a fall of 6 feet or more above a lower level. The use of body belts for fall arrest is prohibited. For work on tanks and towers at heights, 29 CFR 1926.105(a) requires safety nets when workplaces are more than 25 feet above the ground or water surface, or other surfaces where the use of ladders, scaffolds, catch platforms, temporary floors, safety lines, or safety belts is impractical.

Be sure that you and your workers:
Identify all potential tripping and fall hazards before work begins.
For existing and new construction, cover or guard floor holes immediately.
For existing structures, survey the site before working and continually audit as work continues. Look for such hazards as unprotected floor openings/edges, shafts, skylights, stairwells, and roof openings/ edges.
Construct all floor hole covers so they will effectively support two times the weight of employees, equipment and materials that may be imposed on the cover at any one time.

Inspect fall protection equipment for defects before use.
Secure and stabilize all ladders before climbing them. (Note: See 29 CFR 1926 Subpart X — Ladders for more specifics on OSHA's requirements.)

The NIOSH Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program (www.cdc.niosh/face) has investigated numerous job-related deaths due to falls from roofs or other heights. Among NIOSH recommendations are these:

Develop, implement, and enforce a comprehensive written safety program that includes frequent and regular inspections of the job site by a competent person trained in or experienced to perform the inspections. Note: OSHA's fall protection standards (29 CFR 1926.502) require employers to designate a competent person to monitor the safety of other employees. The employer must ensure that this safety monitor is able to recognize fall hazards; will warn an employee when it appears the employee is unaware of a fall hazard or is acting in an unsafe manner; is on the same walking/working surface and within visual sighting distance of the employee being monitored; is close enough to communicate orally with the employee; and does not have other responsibilities that could take his or her attention from the monitoring function.

Provide training for each employee who might be exposed to fall hazards. Note: "Tailgate" safety training (brief, oral training sessions on a single safety topic) is an effective way to reinforce safety issues. OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1926.503 requires that each employee be trained by a competent person in these areas:

  • The nature of fall hazards in the work area.
  • The correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling, and inspecting the fall protection systems to be used.
  • The use and operation of guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems, safety net systems, warning line systems, safety monitoring systems, controlled access zones, and other protection to be used.
  • The role of each employee in the safety monitoring system when this system is used.
  • The correct procedures for the handling and storage of equipment and materials and the erection of overhead protection.
  • The role of employees in fall protection plans.

Ensure that workers who are part of a multilingual workforce comprehend instructions and safe work procedures for the tasks to which they are assigned. Among the ways to improve safety on a multilingual job site are through the use of interpreters and bilingual or multilingual safety programs, safety signage, and posters. Be sure to take into account both language and literacy level issues.

Ensure that all subcontractors have appropriate safety programs. The general contractor should put this into written contract language with subcontractors.

Have a written and implemented fall protection program that, at a minimum, complies with all applicable OSHA fall protection standards.

Ensure through employee training and job site inspections that correct construction procedures, such as the use of appropriate fasteners, are followed during all phases of construction.


A number of free and low-cost resources are available to assist you in protecting your workers from potentially fatal falls when working from heights. Among them are the following:

NIOSH Safety and Health Topic Web page: "Falls from Elevation". This Web page includes links to numerous other resources. Among them are: "Worker Deaths by Falls: A Summary of Surveillance Findings and Investigative Case Reports". NIOSH Alert: "Preventing Falls of Workers through Skylights and Roof and Floor Openings". NIOSH Alert: "Preventing Worker Injuries and Deaths Caused by Falls From Suspension Scaffolds". OSHA resources. OSHA resources include the Safety and Health Topics Web Page: "Fall Protection". Note: You can access applicable federal OSHA standards from this Web page. OSHA Construction eTool: "Falls". OSHA Construction eTool: "Supported Scaffolds Fall Protection". Center for Construction Research and Training. "The Construction Chart Book, Fourth Edition" (February 2008). The Center for Construction Research and Training also has produced an 11-minute DVD available in both English and Spanish entitled "Don't Fall for It!". WorkSafeBC Safety at Work Construction Information.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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