The Hierarchy of Fall Protection

A doctor does not prescribe blood pressure medicine to cure victims of the common flu.

Instead, after taking your baseline metrics, including blood pressure, weight, and heart rate, the doctor then asks a series of questions to diagnose the symptoms. Only when the symptoms have been diagnosed will the doctor prescribe a medicine to cure the illness.

When protecting workers from falls, it is crucial that you first identify the hazardous situation before acting. Only when the situation has been diagnosed can you develop a proper and safe fall protection plan.

If you assess the situation correctly, you’ll know what stage is necessary for developing the proper fall protection plan. The stages include:

  1. Eliminating the hazard
  2. Controlling the perimeter (hole covers and guardrails)
  3. Restraining the fall
  4. Arresting the fall
  5. Administratively controlling fall protection awareness

Eliminating the Hazard

Elimination is always the best solution for any hazardous situation. If you notice a potential hazard, complete and total removal of it is the best course of action for all. If you’re lucky, it may only take a change in procedure to eliminate the worker’s exposure to a fall.

Doing your prep work on the ground is a great option for avoiding working at heights. While on the ground, you can build walls and hoist them in place with a crane. You can also assemble equipment parts before hoisting equipment in place. For masons, cutting brick and block while on the ground instead of when you’re on scaffolding or upper floors, reduces the time workers are exposed to working at heights.

Relocation of the hazard is another option. If planned properly by architects and engineers, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units can be located on the ground instead of on the roof. This not only eliminates the risk of working at heights during construction, but also when the units need servicing or repair.

Controlling the Perimeter

When working at heights cannot be eliminated, the next best fall protection option is using guardrails and hole covers to eliminate fall risk exposure.  The following are best practices for perimeter control:

  • Guardrails must be installed at 21 inches and 42 inches plus or minus 3 inches up or down.
  • The top rail must be strong enough to withstand 250 pounds.
  • The bottom rail must be strong enough to withstand 150 pounds of force.

Restraining the Fall

Restraining the fall occurs when you modify the environment to mitigate as much as possible known fall hazards.

Consider, for example, wearing a harness attached to a tie-off point that sits 35 feet away from a building’s edge. If you assessed the situation beforehand, you may consider attaching a 20-foot self-retracting lifeline from the harness to the tie-off point. This way, the closest you can get is within 15 feet of the edge. Because the work is 15 feet away from the edge and is restricted from access to the hazard, you are in fall restraint

When using restraint on roofs, the closet to the edge the worker is permitted to get is 6 feet.

Arresting the Fall

Fall arrest is used when the worker is exposed to the fall hazard.

Once a fall occurs, many factors come into play. Was the equipment set up correctly? Was the worker properly trained in wearing and connecting harnesses? Will the equipment work as designed? Is there proper clearance distance below where the fall occurs?

For the fall arrest equipment to work properly, it must stop the falling worker within a specific distance and prevent the person from coming in contact with a lower level, or the ground.

When it comes to fall arrest, training is critical. The competent person has an overwhelming list of responsibilities on the jobsite, including observing and training the workers who are the authorized persons on the job.

Administrative Control

These are work practices or procedures that increase a worker’s awareness of a fall hazard. These measures include utilizing warning lines, safety monitors, warning horns, and controlled access zones.

Although this method is generally acceptable, it is the last resort because risk to failure is greater. These options are also heavily regulated by OSHA.

Administrative Control requires that cautions and warnings are installed on roof work at 6 feet inside the edge of the fall hazard. The controls warn workers of the 6 feet restricted area avoiding them from accidentally walking outside the 6-foot barrier line. Most caution tape is not strong enough to maintain its place so rope with caution flags and tape fastened to it is a better solution for delineating the control line.

Too many times, a company executes one job hazard analysis (JHA) and then uses that as the template for every job. I have seen templates designed once and then be used a decade or more.

A fresh JHA is required by OSHA and is the best practice for keeping workers safe. The JHA becomes a fantastic training subject for competent persons and new employees.

ANSI/ASSE Z359.2-2007 covers minimum Requirements for a comprehensive managed fall protection program. In Section 3, Policies, Duties, and Training, you’ll find the road map that needs to be followed to achieve compliance.

Many of the best safety directors in construction and general industries endorse waiting to purchase your safety equipment until after the JHA is complete to maximize cost-effectiveness.

Just like a doctor must check you out before prescribing medicine, effective fall protection prevention starts with careful consideration prior to job kick-off. If you take the time to conduct the JHA, the hierarchy should become clear for every job.

Ken Hebert Bio

Ken Hebert is the Co-Founder and National Sales Manager of Malta Dynamics.  Customer-focused professional who has spent over 20 years marketing in the safety and training industry. For questions concerning technical safety issues or about Malta Dynamics products, Ken can be reached at khebert@maltadynamics.com.

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