Tony Brown, Aff.M.ASCE, spent 10 years in safety with heavy construction companies and 25 years with the EPA and OSHA’s Construction Directorate. Since retiring, he has continued consulting and working with construction and the crane industry, and is active on the ASCE Construction Institute’s Construction Safety Committee. He is a former chair of CI/ASCE’s Crane Safety Committee, a past member of the ASME Main Committee and B30.5 subcommittee, and current member of the ASME B30.23 subcommittee
Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment, and employees are responsible for performing their tasks in a safe and healthy manner.
Fall protection, fall prevention, and fall restraint are everyone’s responsibility and must be taken seriously.
But are they all the same thing?
It’s important to understand the various aspects of each term so that we can stay safe on the job.
Fall prevention refers to a system that prevents or eliminates the hazard of a fall.
Fall protection refers to equipment used to mitigate or limit the effects of a fall from a height. Fall protection doesn’t stop the fall; it is equipment used by employees to limit the distance and effects of a fall when working in an area where a potential fall exists.
Fall prevention is the equivalent of those common-sense tasks that need to be considered and evaluated before putting someone into a hazardous situation, and is often the first step toward protecting employees from dangerous heights and difficult working environments. Fall prevention focuses on eliminating the fall risk altogether.
Fall protection can be thought of as protecting someone if s/he does fall. The fall potential can’t be eliminated, but a person will be protected if it does happen.
There are going to be situations where you can’t take reasonable steps to prevent falls. That’s the reality of the construction industry, for example. When you find yourself dealing with fall risks that can’t be eliminated by prevention, as an employer you have a responsibility to provide fall protection. And that’s not all. Employers must—
• Provide working conditions that are free of known dangers
• Keep floors in work areas in a clean and, so far as possible, dry condition
• Select and provide required personal protective equipment at no cost to workers
• Train workers about job hazards in a language they can understand
Fall protection measures require work on the employee’s part, whereas with fall prevention measures there is little or no burden to the worker.
Employers need to know and be confident that workers have become alerted to the risk potential. Employers are to provide information and training in the purpose and use of fall protection equipment, plus the hazards associated with each task.
Fall prevention equipment, like guardrails, can have a higher upfront cost, but they offer big savings down the road with low maintenance and reusability.
Fall protection gear (PPE) has comparatively lower upfront costs. Once you factor in hidden costs – including training, equipment maintenance, and even possible setup time – the value isn’t as clear. A mix of both is the most practical solution. Employers should make the effort to provide fall prevention methods, i.e., guardrails, scaffolding, etc., and provide fall protection equipment when prevention is not practical or efficient.
So what about fall restraint?
Fall restraint is a system and/or program that is in between fall prevention and fall protection.
Fall restraint is typically used to keep an employee from getting too close to the edge of a roof, or to keep a worker within the confines of the basket of an aerial lift. In a lift, the restraining “lanyard” is usually short, to limit the movement of the employee within the basket and help prevent them from falling or being thrown out of the basket.
In a fall restraint system, therefore, the worker is restrained from reaching a fall hazard. In essence, a fall restraint system prevents workers from reaching a hazard, such as the edge of a roof, although the use of a full-body harness with a fall arrest system allows workers to reach a fall hazard area if necessary to complete their tasks, but provides protection should a fall occur.
The main difference between arrest and restraint is a fall. An arrest occurs after a person free-falls through space until the proper equipment provides deceleration to a safe stop, preventing serious injury. Employers must also develop an emergency action/rescue plan to respond to employees who have been subjected to a fall event, and workers should be briefed on how the equipment might affect their bodies, if its use is triggered by a fall.
Fall arrest systems protect you after you fall: they stop the fall before you hit the surface.
A personal fall-arrest system is required protection for workers on construction sites who are exposed to vertical drops of 6 feet or more.
Too often, we simply put out rules without fully explaining the purpose of fall prevention and protection. Offering explanations gives workers a fuller understanding of the reasons for and importance of certain safety measures.
We should emphasize the need for employees’ personal inspection of harnesses, belts, and lanyards. For example, one time I inspected an employee’s safety harness and found a large, hot weld hole in the harness, which might have failed if the employee had fallen and stressed the equipment.
Simply put, fall protection/prevention/restraint are provisions developed to prevent employees from falling from one level to a lower level.
Safe work practices result in the following:
• Fewer injuries and fatalities
We can prevent fall injuries by working together to comply with established safe work practices and being aware of the potential hazards of the work zone.