Fall Protection Can Be Surprising

Fall Protection Can Be Surprising

You might be surprised at what is included in the standards.

What comes to mind when you think of fall protection? Is it a harness, keeping a construction worker connected to a building? Or is it a device that alerts an emergency if a worker has fallen and is unconscious?

When asked this question, employers and employees alike think of a wide range of tools and ideas with the term “fall protection” including tactile solutions like a fall detection device to conceptual solutions such as safety training and protocols. It is an umbrella term for a broad spectrum of occupational safety that, according to the OSHA, prevents “employees from falling off of overhead platforms, elevated work stations or into holes in the floor and walls.” 

Every year, thousands of workers in the US and beyond are injured from a fall at work. In 2019, nearly 250,000 American workers were injured from a fall that was serious enough that it required time off work. Of those, 880 people died in the work-related fall, resulting in immeasurable ramifications for the employee’s family and company.

Active Versus Passive Fall Protection  

To prevent these incidents from occurring, employers should look at both active and passive fall protection, which play different but important roles in the safety of the employees.

Active fall protection prevents injury and accidents through the use of special equipment and/or technology as well as the participation of the worker. Active fall protection can include fall detection devices and fall restraint systems.

On the other hand, passive fall protection is a system that is non-dynamic, stationary, and does not move or adapt or change when in or out of use. These include measures that are usually static and installed in place, such as safety netting and guardrails, essentially preventing the worker from hitting the ground. As you read further, you will learn about active and passive fall protection options as well as the specific occupational safety needs and circumstances they help satisfy. 


One of the most obvious but surprisingly underutilized passive fall protections is the humble guardrail. While they are common at tall heights, at lower heights, permanent and temporary guardrails need to be installed more often, especially in areas where it can be slippery or unstable. OSHA’s safety regulation fall protection systems criteria and practices states: “Top edge height of top rails, or equivalent guardrail system members, shall be 42 inches (1.1 m) plus or minus 3 inches (8 cm) above the walking/working level. When conditions warrant, the height of the top edge may exceed the 45-inch height, provided the guardrail system meets all other criteria of this paragraph.”

Additionally, low level guardrails can act as effective, permanent barriers to prohibited areas as well as protective measures against damage to certain spaces and equipment.

Safety Training  

So now to the other end of the fall protection spectrum: safety training. Unlike the very quiet and passive guardrails, safety training is fall protection that is very active and engaging. Training may be required in the use of fall protection equipment such as fall arrest systems. More importantly, safety training engages staff in scenarios with coworkers and managers that not only satisfy education/safety program objectives, but also have them working together towards a goal that benefits everyone. 

Safety Culture  

It’s fairly straightforward to implement safety protocols and rules that every employee must follow. If they don’t follow the safety rules, they will be penalized. However, the goal of every organization should be to create a strong safety culture where employees will want to follow safety protocols and not do so because of retribution. A solid safety culture is where employees understand why certain measures are in place and see the value to their own well-being as well as their coworkers.

In order to build a strong safety culture, strategies like training, as well as workshops and any other engaging safety-related activities, can strengthen personal and professional bonds among employees who are more productive—and happier—in the end.

Harnessing from Heights  

We also have to mention the obvious and what usually comes to mind when we think about fall protection: full-body harnesses. These devices come in many shapes and sizes and protect those working in high-elevation jobs. The harness essentially attaches the worker to a stationary object, protecting them from a dangerous fall.

As we said, harnesses are needed and even required (depending on local safety legislation) for those working from tall heights. However, dangerous falls can occur at even low elevations so the employer must assess the work situation to determine if there is a safety risk such as slippery areas, ledges, or walkways that may be difficult to navigate.

Fall Restraints and Roof Anchors  

So, what are the harnesses connected to? There are a number of points they can be secured to, including fall restraints and roof anchors, in which the worker can be connected to when working near ledges. These components, along with a lanyard, are collectively called a fall arrest system. Since fall arrest systems are usually static and installed at a fixed location, any potentially dangerous areas must be thoroughly assessed to determine if they will help protect the employees.

Again, assess any work areas that might require the installation of a fall arrest system and where workers will benefit. (Due to the time required for installation as well as training, make sure this is the best safety solution for your safety needs, and the hazard assessments that say so are thorough.)

Fall Protection Plans  

The backbone of any fall protection protocols or program is a well-planned and researched fall protection plan specific to each site or work area. Fall protection plans document safety objectives and goals, as well as protocols and procedures around:

  • Usage of fall protection equipment such as fall restraint systems. 
  • Any safety hazards identified at that site by a hazard assessment
  • Usage of fall protection technologies such as fall detection devices.
  • Assemblage and usage of temporary fall protection measures such as guardrails.
  • Emergency response plan with company contacts.

When developing a fall protection plan, make sure all impacted employees are involved in the development process. Employees, of all levels and positions, are the most attuned eyes and ears to any safety risks, and that valuable knowledge should be leveraged and taken advantage of for the benefit of their safety.

Footwear and Walking Areas  

When asked about fall protection, something that typically doesn’t come to mind is footwear, walking areas, and surfaces. For jobs that require walking on slippery surfaces and difficult terrain, appropriate footwear will help prevent falls while working.

Employees may have different walking requirements from a disability or injury. In those cases, their circumstances must be evaluated to determine if new footwear or walking aids are needed. Additionally, walking surfaces can be assessed to determine if resurfacing of a walkway may be needed or non-slipping mats during the wet winter. Protocols such as scattering salt or gravel on walkways and work areas during the winter can also be included in the fall protection plan as they will complement the safety objectives documented in the plan.

Fall Hazards are Everywhere  

With falls, big and small, so prevalent in the workplace, employers and employees are beginning to take this significant safety issue seriously. What was originally viewed as mostly a construction or electrical safety hazard, fall safety hazards are now being identified in all industries and positions.

Not only do fall hazards exist on tall buildings or electrical poles, but they can also be found on steps up to the office or with someone who has mobility difficulties. Employers and managers—and employees—need to view their workplace with a different lens that sees these fall hazards, no matter how small or severe.

While that may be a bit overwhelming, assess each site, one-by-one, and find the best strategies to mitigate the identified fall hazards. The good news is that there are a number of proactive safety measures that can be implemented ahead of time, to prevent a fall from occurring at all. Once you know what your employees are facing, then you know what can be done to protect them to the best of your ability and resources. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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