Taking Safety to New Heights

90th Anniversary

Taking Safety to New Heights

There is a long history behind the development of fall protection standards, personal protective equipment and the ways safety professionals keep workers safe at heights.

I’m sure you’ve seen it before—the photo of the construction workers sitting on an iron beam, having their lunch high above New York City. The photo, aptly named, “Lunch atop the city,” was taken in 1932 and shows 11 construction workers taking a break from building 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

The photo is a time capsule, a snapshot of the past and a reminder of how work used to be done without safety in mind. As you can imagine, back in 1932, there was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration, no Construction Industry Standard to protect workers from heights, no ANSI standards giving construction managers and safety professionals best practices to keep workers safe.

In our special 90th Anniversary coverage this issue, we will take a look at the development of fall protection standards and how PPE has evolved with modern work and technology.

Early Use of Fall Protection

Prior to the formation of OSHA, worker safety was often left to be the responsibility of the worker. It is believed that employers were rarely involved in keeping employees safe outside of posting a sign that warned, “Fall Hazard” or verbally telling workers to be careful. There was one project, however, that found safety to be an integral part of their construction practices.

In the 1930’s the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco began its long process to completion. Joseph Stauss, the chief project engineer on the project, decided to implement safety practices that, at the time, were revolutionary. He required all construction workers to wear hard hats, where respirators when riveting and to tie themselves off with the use of safety belts and tie off lines.

When the risk of falling became eminent three years into the project, Stauss invested $130,000 in a rope-and-mesh safety net that would be suspended under the bridge. The was able to give workers confidence as they performed their duties and prevented many deadly falls over the course of construction—19 men fell into the net and survived.

During the entire project, only 11 men died, 10 of which suffered fatal falls when a five-ton platform collapsed and ripped through the safety net. Even then, two of the men still survived the tragic 220-foot fall into the water.

Developing Fall Protection Standards

Following the OSH Act and the formation of OSHA, the agency began to enforce workplace safety in industries in which they deemed high risk. The construction industry thus became one of the more highly regulated industries by OSHA inspectors. Due to the high cost of fines, if found to be in noncompliance with the agency, employers had—for the first time ever—an incentive to enforce safety protocols onsite.

While there were many safety and health risks to mitigate, falls from heights were near the top of the list. Employers began to enforce the use of safety belts and tie off ropes as well as erecting guardrails and gates to keep workers from entering into high platforms or falling off them as instructed by standards that made up the Construction Safety Act. This act was later adopted by the OSH Act and codified as Title 29 Code of Federal Regulations Part 1926 on December 30, 1971. Several fall protection regulations were part of the Construction Safety Act and they include:

  • 29 CFR 1926.104 —Safety belts, lifelines, and lanyards
  • 29 CFR 1926.105 — Safety nets
  • 29 CFR 1926 Subpart M — Fall Protection

In 1994, OSHA instituted the Subpart M Fall Protection Standard for construction. The standard applied to construction workers who would be performing duties at six feet or higher as well as risks from falling objects, falling because of, or through, holes, and working with dangerous equipment without regard for height. In this standard, employers were instructed to use protection systems such as guardrails, safety nets or personal fall arrest systems.

OSHA would continue to publish and issue compliance guides, standards and rules to protect workers from dangerous heights throughout the years. For instance, in 2011 OSHA would issue a Compliance Guidance for Residential Construction which would extend fall protection coverage to employees working on residential construction sites. Then, OSHA would update its Walking-Working Surfaces Standards in 2016. The rule would benefit employers by providing greater flexibility in choosing a fall protection system—no longer limiting employers to guardrails as a primary fall protection method.

To this day, fall protection standards continue to evolve as industries and technologies do. Worker safety organizations, like the American National Standards Institute, continue to research and develop more advanced and effective ways to create safer situations for workers at heights. Over the years, the ANSI standards for fall protection have become the outline for many safety programs across the country. They have also influenced changes in OSHA standards.

PPE to the Rescue

As mentioned above, the transformation of industries and technologies became leading motivators for changes in OSHA standards. The evolution of personal protective equipment when it came to fall protection greatly impacted the options available to employers and gave OSHA the ability to allow workplaces to choose what worked best for workers and the risks associated with their work. Let’s take a quick look at fall protection equipment over the years:

Body Belt. The body belt was inspired by a similar item that rock climbers would use to ensure their safety on their ascend. These body belts were worn around the waist and were one of the earliest versions of a personal fall arrest system in the 1920s. The body belts had their drawbacks, though, as they would only work if the employee fell a certain way. If the employee fell horizontally, then the belt would arrest the fall and save the fallen victim. If the employee fell any other way, the likelihood of the belt sliding over the employee’s shoulders and off of them was high, leading to little or no protection at all. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that a safety lanyard would be added to achieve added security and safety.

Safety Harnesses. In the 1940s, employers started to turn their eyes to the new safety harness. These offered better protection compared to the body belt but early versions were bulky and cumbersome. Despite early comfort and design flaws, the harnesses were a vast improvement in fall protection technology and had the capability to arrest a fall no matter how the worker fell. The harness went through its own kind of evolution, with many tests of materials and design. By the 1990s the safety harness was standard fall protection equipment as employees were more comfortable wearing them and the device did not hinder their productivity.

Lanyards. As mentioned before, safety lanyards were introduced in the 1970s to bolster the safety and protection of body belts, but time would only find even better ways for lanyards to be used. Research in workplace hazards found that falling from heights was not the only risk associated with the work. Falling objects, such as tools or materials, could create a dangerous situation for anyone who happened to be below workers. As a way to protect workers from falling objects, manufacturers began to create tool lanyards that would allow workers to affix objects to an area nearby or to themselves. These tool lanyards can catch any tethered device and keep it from falling onto those below.

Today’s fall protection devices, safety lanyards and harnesses, meet strict OSHA standards and are tested rigorously to ensure comfort, fit, protection and efficiency. Manufacturers now work hand-in-hand with safety associations and institutes to create premium protection for all workers. The industry as a whole now has one goal in mind: making sure employees safely return home at the end of each shift.

While this is only a small peak behind the curtain, there is so much more you should know about keeping workers safe when fall hazards are present. Occupational Health & Safety provides webinars three times a year on the topic of Fall Protection and keeps our website up-to-date with the latest information on OSHA standards and updates from safety organizations. Staying diligent and refreshed on the latest information in the safety industry is just one way to ensure we are all staying safe.

This article originally appeared in the March 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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