Workplace Safety: Preventing Falls From Heights

Workplace safety is too often an afterthought. Instead of making safety a top priority, many individuals and companies only begin to consider safety controls once it is too late. Especially in the construction industry, which is considered one of the most dangerous industries to work in due to fall hazards, this lack-of consideration can result in costly and devastating effects.

But when is the best time to think about safety for construction companies and workers? Is it during initial construction? After completion of a project? During operation, maintenance, and renovation? Or should safety considerations and plans begin to take form at some earlier time?

The short answer is safety management should take place BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER all that you do. Period. However, because employers are the entities responsible for workplace safety according to OSHA regulation, safety considerations can often be neglected BEFORE initial construction. That is, architects and design engineers do not always consider hazards during the design phase of a construction project.

Consequently, safety controls embedded in the design phase of a construction project can have some of the largest impacts on reducing accidents and fatalities at a specific jobsite. So, in many cases, safety needs to be thought about much sooner and earlier in business processes than some may think.

Have you ever heard about the Hierarchy of Controls pyramid? Let’s do a quick review to remind us of the various control methods at our disposal and which are most effective.

The Hierarchy of Controls

According to the Hierarchy of Controls,  there are essentially five general categories of methods that can be used to control hazards, including:

  1. Elimination
    Hierarchy of Controls

    Hierarchy of Controls

  2. Substitution
  3. Engineering Controls
  4. Administrative Controls
  5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

As the image to the right demonstrates, elimination and substitution are the most effective at reducing hazards. However, they also tend to be the most difficult to implement for an existing process, because major changes in equipment and procedures may be required to eliminate or substitute a hazard. If the process is still at the design or developmental stage, elimination and substitution of hazards may be inexpensive and simple to implement. For example, an employer may eliminate a hazard by getting rid of a dangerous machine. Alternatively or in addition, an employer may substitute a hazard by replacing the dangerous machine with a safer one.

Engineering controls are used to remove a hazard or place a barrier between the worker and the hazard. Well-designed engineering controls can be highly effective in protecting workers. The initial cost of engineering controls can be higher than the costs of administrative controls or PPE, but over the long term, operating costs are typically lower. For example, an employer may use engineering controls by attaching guards to a dangerous machine to protect users.

Administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) are often used where existing processes have hazards that are not particularly well-controlled. These methods are often less costly to implement, but are more costly to sustain over the long run. These controls reduce the risk of harm, but do not address the hazard itself. For example, an employer may use administrative controls by training workers how to use a machine safely. Additionally, an employer may require personal protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles, to be worn when using the machine.

Let’s take a closer look at a specific prevention method that can be applied to fall hazards in the construction industry. This prevention method employs strategies that may fall under the elimination, substitution, and engineering controls categories.

Prevention through Design (PtD)

Prevention through Design (PtD) addresses worker exposure to hazards during the design stages of a project. When a building or other structure is designed or redesigned, risks of fall-related injuries and fatalities to construction workers and users of the completed facilities can be minimized by following a PtD approach. In other words, safety management begins to take place BEFORE initial construction.

According to NIOSH, facility designers, owners, constructors, and safety and health professionals should collaborate and perform one or more safety design reviews to address hazards likely to occur over the life cycle of a facility.

To address hazards that are likely to occur over the life cycle of the facility, a PtD approach would incorporate safety features into the building’s design, address fall hazards in construction plans, establish safety criteria for buying equipment, and communicate risks to building owners and facilities personnel rather than rely on other forms of protection, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) or administrative controls.

Design Solutions

Designers, architects, and all others involved in the design process should first consider the need for permanent fall protection features to protect construction workers, future occupants of facilities, and repair workers from fall hazards. After a safety design review has been conducted and the hazards workers may be exposed to are known, designers and safety professionals can then use the Hierarchy of Controls to select the most appropriate and effective options to address the identified hazards and risks. The Hierarchy of Controls for fall protection may involve the following:

  1. Eliminating or modifying the fall hazard itself (preferred approach):
  • Adopt a building design involving a single level at grade rather than multiple levels at elevations.
  • Use parapet walls or permanent guardrails to separate workers from fall hazards.
  1. Provide a fall restraint system that secures workers via anchor points, connectors, lanyards, and body harnesses to prevent workers from reaching the fall hazards.
  2. Install a fall arrest system. This option also uses anchor points, connectors, lanyards, and body harnesses, but allows exposure to the fall. However, fall arrest systems are then designed to stop the fall after it has begun.

Benefits of PtD

There are several benefits to employing a PtD strategy to control hazards, including, but not limited to:

  • Having fall safety features in the original design and permanently embedded in concrete has been shown to save money in the long run.
  • Fall protection can be set up more efficiently in the future using permanently installed features rather than temporary fall protection.
  • Workers are more likely to be kept safe from fall hazards, which reduces liabilities and costs.

What hazard control strategies do you employ at your workplace? Hopefully you will now consider using Prevention through Design (PtD) strategies going forward!