Over the past decade, businesses and regulators have focused more on preventing fatal workplace falls. Unfortunately, falls continue to occur at an alarming rate. Falls are one of the leading causes of workplace death in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although fall prevention has been a big topic of conversation within construction for many years, no industry is safe from fall hazards. In 2020, 368 construction workers died from falls, while 805 workers across all sectors lost their lives to falls.
Despite the high incident rate and increased awareness, many companies continue to struggle with fall prevention. In fact, fall protection has been the most cited OSHA violation for the past decade.
One of the most prominent hurdles organizations face when addressing fall hazards is how complex the subject can be. All the standards, regulations, equipment options and required training make managing the issue properly a real challenge for even the most safety-conscious companies.
Also, while fatal falls happen regularly across the country, most companies have never experienced one. This relative rarity means many businesses are inexperienced and unprepared for falls and are then left picking up the pieces, and the bill, when a fall occurs.
A deeper understanding of the root causes of these accidents is greatly needed to strengthen standards and save lives.
A recent survey uncovered interesting findings into the underlying causes of workplace falls from height. The anonymous 32-question Fall Experience Survey, conducted by The Center for Construction Research and Training with support from the American Society of Safety Professionals, gathered information from 671 safety professionals and others about workplace falls they had been involved in, witnessed or investigated.
Key Findings from the Survey
- Insufficient or ineffective planning was the most selected primary cause for falls (27%).
- The likelihood of using fall protection was 71% lower for individuals whose employer or competent person did not do any planning.
- Nearly half (49%) of respondents said that no fall protection was being used at the time of the fall.
- Respondents who believed fall protection was required by their employer were eight times more likely to use it.
- The odds of a fall being fatal were 76% lower for those who had self-rescue training compared to those who did not have this training.
- Subcontractor employees were 2.7 times more likely to die from the fall than those who worked for a general contractor.
Companies have a moral and legal obligation to protect their workers from recognized hazards in their workplace. Those who want to avoid the pain and suffering—not to mention the steep price tag of severe or fatal workplace falls—must reevaluate their approach and refocus their attention on the subject. Unfortunately, the survey shows that many organizations are not doing enough to address fall hazards, and their employees are paying the price.
In addition, this survey also illuminates something safety professionals figured out a long time ago: If your company doesn't adequately train its employees to use fall protection, you’re not doing enough to protect your workers from severe or fatal falls.
Investing in Fall Protection
The continuous push by companies to boost profits by increasing efficiency and cutting costs has negative consequences for workplace safety. This idea of doing more with less means leaders may try to make a job work with the tools and supplies they currently have instead of investing in the best tools.
Unfortunately, this is a recipe for disaster when it comes to fall protection. That's because there is no one-size-fits-all solution when addressing fall hazards. Fall threats are unique. Each situation may require a different answer, and using the wrong piece of fall protection equipment may not provide the protection the user intended.
Some organizations buy the latest gear and install anchor points and other fall protection systems throughout their facilities and think that is enough to become OSHA-compliant and eliminate workplace falls. While this is an excellent first step, it misses one of the most crucial steps to protecting your workers from falls: training.
What’s the point of investing all that money into fall protection if nobody knows how to use it properly?
Fall protection is a complicated subject. Without proper training, the best equipment in the world can’t protect your workers from falls. The consequences are too extreme to leave fall protection up to chance; that’s why the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration (OSHA) makes training mandatory.
According to OSHA 1910.30, employers must provide fall protection training from a qualified person before employees can perform work that may expose them to a fall. That training must educate on recognizing fall hazards; minimizing their risks; and identifying the correct way to install, inspect, operate and disassemble the personal fall protection employees will use.
In addition, employers must retrain workers periodically and whenever there are any changes to fall protection systems and equipment.
When choosing fall protection, one mistake in judgment is enough to land an employee in the hospital—or worse. Fall protection also tends to give users a false sense of security. This is especially true for users who do not fully understand the nuances of fall protection and its application.
Let’s look at a couple common scenarios where an incomplete understanding of the applications of fall protection components can result in severe consequences.
Scenario 1: A construction worker is near the unprotected third-floor edge of an exposed concrete slab. They are wearing a harness with a nylon self-retracting lanyard connected to an anchor point on the roof above. The worker assumes they are safe because they’re tied off. However, they slip over the edge and the nylon lanyard is cut when it contacts the sharp edge of the concrete slab.
If the worker and their supervisor were adequately trained, they would know they were performing leading-edge work. Leading-edge work requires fall protection designed for the application, often a reinforced steel cable lanyard that can withstand the cutting force of the leading edge.
Scenario 2: An employee is inside the basket of a boom lift and is tied off to the designated anchor point with a harness and a 6-foot nylon lanyard. The lift hits a bump while driving, and the employee is thrown from the basket and left hanging over the side of the lift. They now require someone to rescue them and are in a potentially fatal situation because hanging in a harness for as little as 10 minutes can be fatal.
If the worker and their supervisor were adequately trained, they would know that a self-retracting lanyard is a better fit for this scenario and would likely have prevented the employee from leaving the basket.
Scenarios like these illustrate why proper employee fall protection training is so vital. However, training doesn’t end with picking the appropriate protection for the job or identifying hazards; it also includes maintaining your equipment.
Fall protection must be continuously maintained to ensure that it works as intended and protects your workers when they need it most. OSHA requires that employers perform regular equipment inspections on all fall protection components to ensure it is safe and compliant. In addition, users must inspect their fall protection before every use.
Conducting these inspections is essential to maintain the quality and safety of your equipment—and the health and well-being of your employees.