Episode 15 – Fall Protection


Toolbox Topic: Fall Protection and Fall Arrest Systems

It should be evident that fall protection is essential when working at heights! In today’s episode, we will review personal fall arrest systems and talk about things you can do to keep yourself safe.



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worker gdb137349f 640Generally, fall protection can be provided through the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems. OSHA refers to these systems as conventional fall protection.

Personal fall arrest system” means a system used to arrest an employee in a fall from a working level. It consists of an anchorage, connectors, a body belt, or a body harness. It may include a lanyard, deceleration device, lifeline, or suitable combinations of these.



Early Fall Protection

Fall protection has come a long way since the 1920s. Inspired by rock climbing equipment, body belts were the best protection at the time.

Fall Protection and the Golden Gate Bridge

In 1933 San Francisco began construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The project cost more than $35 million, and that’s $529 million in today’s (2020) money. The chief project engineer was Joseph Strauss. He required workers to wear hard hats, safety belts with tie-off lines, and respirators, which was all pretty revolutionary at the time.

Strauss invested $130,000 for a rope-and-mesh safety net suspended under the bridge. This net prevented some deadly falls. A total of nineteen men accidentally fell into that net, and not one of them died. In 1937, a massive five-ton platform collapsed, tearing through the net. As a result, a dozen men fell over 200 feet into the water. Of the twelve men who fell, only two survived. Even with that catastrophe, only 11 workers died during the entire project!

Issues with the Body Belts and the Advent of the Modern Harness

Now back to those body belts. They certainly had some issues. Tying one off was time-consuming because users had to tie and retie lines constantly. The biggest problem with body belts is that they are ineffective if you don’t fall “correctly.” Meaning that you must fall horizontal so the belt would actually catch you. If you fall any other way, you will slip out of the belt.

There was a better way. Inspired by U.S. Army paratroopers, manufacturers in the 1940s started producing harnesses. Harnesses offered a far more reliable fall protection system. Some of the early iterations were complex and bulky, but still, they were a vast improvement over body belts. Materials and design improved over the decades, and by the 1990s, the full-body harness became standard equipment.







Fall Statistics

In 2020, 805 workers died from falls, making it 15% of worker fatalities. In addition, there were 211,640 lost-time injuries.

Construction workers are the most at risk for fatal falls from height – more than seven times the rate of other industries. Falls are the leading cause of death in construction.

Also, in 2020 Fall protection somehow made it into the OSHA’s top ten list of most frequently cited standards not once but twice! So how did that happen? It was the #1 and #8 citation. #1 was for fall protection, and number 8 was for fall protection training.







Safety Tips

Safety Tip #1 Elimination of Fall Hazards

Our first goal should always be to eliminate hazards where possible. For example, guardrails and toe boards protect openings such as skylights and edges.

Safety Tip #2 Harnesses

Never work at heights without fall protection. Always wear a full-body harness whe required. A proper fall protection harness has straps worn around the trunk and thighs. It will distribute “stopping force” across your thighs, pelvis, chest, and shoulders in the event you fall.


Safety Tip #3 Inspecting Your Harness

(Free PDF inspection form.)

When performing an inspection, thoroughly inspect the following:

  • Nylon webbing for frayed edges, broken fibers, burn marks, deterioration, or other visible signs of damage.
  • Check that stitching is intact and not torn or loose.
  • Check buckles and D-rings to ensure they are not distorted or damaged.
  • Look for stress cracks, deformity, gouging, corrosion, and sharp edges.
  • Inspect connection points where the buckle or D-ring attaches to the harness.
  • Ensure that the buckle or D-ring is securely attached and no stitching is pulled.
  • Inspect rivets and grommets for deformities and that they are securely fastened to the harness.
  • If using a shock absorber type of lanyard, look for the warning tag as an indication that the lanyard has been exposed to a fall.
  • Snap hooks and eyes should not be bent or distorted in any way. Inspect for cracks, sharp edges, gouges, or corrosion.
  • Check the locking mechanism; it should operate smoothly.
  • Test the locking mechanism by pulling sharply on the cable end to ensure it locks immediately and firmly.

If your harness fails inspection, take it out of service. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. Ensure you are correctly connected, and your lanyard is attached to the D-ring on your fall arrest harness, then anchored securely to an anchor point. Guardrails should never be used as an anchor point.


Safety Tip #4 Wearing Your Harness

Harnesses must be worn correctly. As we discussed in an earlier episode on Personal Protective Equipment, PPE is not a fashion statement. Make sure straps are fastened and adjusted correctly. Never start work until you are satisfied with the fit of your harness.


Safety Tip #5 Footwear

Ensure you are wearing the proper footwear for the job. Footwear should always provide good traction to prevent you from slipping and falling.


Safety Tip #6 Rescue Planning

A rescue plan must be in place to provide for prompt rescue of employees in the event of a fall. It only takes a short amount of time for the harness to restrict blood circulation, leading to unconsciousness or even death. If you are not familiar with the plan, talk to your supervisor or company representative.

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