Falls are one of leading causes of death among construction workers. In 2004, 1,224 construction workers died on the job, with 36 percent or 440 of those fatalities resulting from falls. Most falls are caused by uneven working surfaces, misuse of fall protection equipment, and human error. Studies have shown that the use of guardrails, fall arrest systems, covers, and controlled access zones can prevent many of these deaths and injuries.

There are two basic types of fall protection. The first is a Fall Restraint System, such as a guardrail. These will keep you from falling off a surface or hold you back if you trip. When properly installed and maintained, guardrails offer the greatest level of protection to all workers onsite exposed to fall hazards. The second is a Fall Arrest System, such as a safety harness, lifeline, and anchorage point. These stop and break your fall. Never use any type of Fall Arrest System for fall protection unless your employer has properly trained you. It is not the type of equipment you can buy off the shelf, put it on, and wear it properly the first time.

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Fall protection includes proper use of fall arrest harnesses and building temporary guard rails around openings. You should also be familiar with requirements for stairs, ramps, and construction access.

Under OSHA guidelines, if there are no guardrails, at what height are you required to tie off using a Fall Arrest System?

OSHA's main rule is that you should tie off when the drop is 6 feet or more.

There are exceptions to the 6-foot rule for some trades, like roofers and ironworkers. In addition, some State Safety Plans also have exceptions to the 6-foot rule. For example, CalOSHA requires tie-off at 7-1/2 feet, but allows a free fall of no greater that 4 feet. Be sure to check your State's specific regulations regarding fall protection requirements.

If you use guardrails and fall protection equipment, does it need to be inspected?

Guardrails need to be properly built to withstand a 200-pound force. The top rail must be of at least 2x4 construction and 42 inches high off the surface. A midrail at 21 inches is also required. Posts should be secured in place and spaced no more than 8 feet apart. Any wood used for construction should be of good quality and free of defects.

Make sure that any fall arrest system equipment you use is approved. Look for labels showing that it meets American National Standards Institute (ANSI) safety requirements. Be sure the equipment is installed and used according to the manufacturer's instructions. Keep all of the manufacturer's instructions and document your inspections on the forms they provide. Be sure all equipment is in good condition. Remove from service any lanyard or lifeline that has broken someone's fall, or that has become frayed or worn. Be sure you have the right equipment for the job. For example, safety belts are no longer allowed in fall arrest systems.

When there is a hole, should you cover it?

It seems almost too simple. But no hole should be left open for workers to trip on or fall into. These can easily be covered. Covers must be able to support two times the intended load, be secured in place with nails or screws to prevent movement, and be marked, "Do Not Remove." If workers must remove covers to perform work, they will need to provide guardrails or wear fall protection equipment around the opening. When work is completed, covers must once again be secured in place to protect others on site.

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Nail 2x4 guardrails across window openings as soon as walls are erected.

How can you properly secure your lifeline or lanyard to an anchorage point?

Anchor it at a level no lower than your waist. That way, you will limit your fall to a maximum of four feet. Anchor it to a substantial structural member, and be sure to follow the manufacturer's requirements for attachment. If screws are required, you cannot substitute nails just because they're quicker and easier to install. Remember, your life may be hanging on whatever you anchor to. Don't make this the weakest link in the chain of your survival.

What else besides guardrails and Fall Arrest Systems can you use for fall protection?

In rare occasions or for certain jobs such as setting trusses and beams it may not be practical to tie off or install a guardrail system. OSHA understands this and allows an employer to develop a written fall protection plan when the usual fall protection measures are impractical or create a greater hazard to employees.

The plan allows work to be done in a designated area without the usual fall protection practices in place. Alternate measures must be used to reduce fall hazards in that area. These include special training for workers, and constant observation of the work by a safety monitor.

The plan must be in writing and be drawn up by a qualified person, and a copy of the plan must be available on the site at all times. All employees must be thoroughly trained in the requirements of the plan. The areas without fall protection are called "controlled- access zones." Only trained workers can enter these areas.

Are there any special requirements for controlled-access zones?

There must be a barrier (ropes, wires, or caution tape) to restrict access to the zone. Warning signs must be posted around the controlled access zone. There must be a designated safety monitor for the zone, who must at all times watch and stay in communication with anyone working in the zone. The safety monitor can have no other jobs or duties that will interfere with the monitoring of workers in the controlled-access zone.

Peter Kuchinsky