Falling Down on the Job

Falls accounted for more than one third of workplace deaths and remain among the most common cause of serious work-related injuries and deaths.
By Jonathan H. Schaefer
September 6, 2019

Since 2011, the Fall Protection standard for construction (40 C.F.R. § 1926.501) has been the most cited Occupational Safety and Health Act violation in the country. In 2017, the Fall Protection Training Requirements (40 C.F.R. § 1926.503) became the ninth most cited OSHA violation in the country. Last year, it moved up to eighth. OSHA’s consistent focus on fall protection, along with scaffolding and ladders, does not appear to be letting up.

And why would it? In some recent years, falls have accounted for more than one-third of workplace deaths. Falls remain among the most common cause of serious work-related injuries and deaths. OSHA inspectors typically have little patience or leniency for employers who do not take seriously their obligation to ensure that employees leave the worksite each day free from harm.

OSHA Fall Protection Requirements

Under OSHA, employers have an obligation to establish and maintain a workplace that prevents employees from being harmed. This includes preventing employees from falling from overhead platforms, elevated work stations or into holes in the floor and walls. For the construction industry, fall protection is required at elevations of six feet or more above a lower level. However, if an employee is working over dangerous equipment and machinery, then fall protection is required regardless of the fall distance. Employees may not be exposed to any fall protection hazards.

Fall protection can take various shapes, forms and degrees. The type and manner of fall protection required largely depends on the type of construction work being undertaken, where that work is occurring and the nature of the work. Most people will typically think of fall protection as harnesses, guardrails or toe boards. Fall protection can also include safety nets, gating, floor covering, routine cleaning of floors for debris and spills, and a variety of other best management practices.

OSHA Fall Protection Training Requirements

Employers are also required to provide compliant fall protection training to all employees. Training by a qualified person must be provided for each employee who uses fall protection systems. At a minimum, training must include:

  • the nature of the fall hazards in the work area;
  • how to recognize fall hazards in the work area;
  • procedures to be followed to minimize those hazards;
  • the correct procedures for installing, inspecting, operating, maintaining and disassembling the personal fall protection systems that the employee uses; and
  • the correct use of personal fall protection systems and equipment applicable to the work area, including proper hook-up, anchoring and tie-off techniques.

Employers are required to train employees on the hazards of using certain equipment. Such equipment includes dockboards and rope descent systems. Employees must be trained on the proper care, inspection, storage and use of such equipment.

Employers must also retrain any employee the employer has reason to believe does not have the understanding or skill required to avoid the fall and equipment hazards noted above. When changes in the worksite render previous training obsolete or inadequate, retraining is required. Retraining is also required when changes in the types of fall protection systems or equipment to be used render previous training obsolete or inadequate.

Recent Notable Citations

Along with being the most cited OSHA violation in the country, the Fall Protection standard also has been the source of some notable recent citations. In June of this year alone, OSHA announced two significant citations for serious violations of the Fall Protection standard and Fall Protection Training Requirements.

On June 12, OSHA issued a news release detailing the citations and fines assessed against a Maine roofing contractor after an employee fell to his death at a job site in December 2018. OSHA cited the construction company for egregious, willful, repeat and serious workplace safety violations. Inspectors found that the company knowingly failed to ensure the use of fall protection by employees at two job sites. As a result of an extensive history of violations and the egregious nature of the violations, OSHA issued a citation for failure to ensure the use of fall protection for each exposed employee at each job site – 13 in total. Altogether, the owner of the construction company is subject to a total of $1,792,726 in penalties.

On June 21, OSHA issued a news release detailing the citations and fines assessed against two Florida construction contractors after a fatal fall from an elevated work platform at a Miami construction site. Inspectors found that the contractors had not only failed to provide fall protection, but also failed to perform regular inspections of the worksite and permitted employees to use unsecured extension ladders. Together, the contractors face nearly $90,000 in penalties.

Multi-Employer Worksite Policy

On a typical construction worksite with several different contractors and sub-contractors, it is not always clear who is responsible for compliance with the Fall Protection Standard. In fact, OSHA’s Multi-Employer Citation Policy allows more than one employer to be cited for a hazardous condition that violates an OSHA standard. As a result, any employer that exposes an employee to a hazard in violation of an OSHA standard can be cited if the employer is a creating, exposing, correcting or controlling employer.

A creating employer is the employer that created the hazardous condition. An exposing employer includes the employers on-site whose employees are exposed to the hazard, even if the hazard was created by another employer. A correcting employer is one with the responsibility for correcting a hazard on a worksite. A controlling employer is an employer that has general supervisory authority over the worksite, including the authority to correct safety and health violations or require others to do so.
Because construction worksites tend to involve many separate and distinct employers, each with different roles and responsibilities, it is especially important for construction employers to not only ensure their employees are safe from hazards, but also that any actions or inaction on their part are not causing other employees to be exposed to hazards.

Standard Fall Protection Tips

Following standard fall protection tips can be a good start to ensuring compliance at worksites:

  • all potential tripping and fall hazards must be identified before work starts;
  • assess the worksite fall hazards such as stairwells, shafts, skylights, unprotected floor openings/edges and roof openings/edges;
  • confirm fall protection equipment is free from defects before use;
  • only use fall protection equipment appropriate for the task;
  • stabilize and secure all ladders before climbing them;
  • never stand on the top rung/step of a ladder;
  • use handrails when going up or down stairs and other pitches; and
  • good housekeeping saves lives – keep cords, ropes, welding leads and air hoses out of walkways or adjacent work areas.

Be Proactive

Worksite injuries carry tremendous costs for the worker and the company. It’s well worth taking a walk- through worksites and looking carefully for potential fall hazards. With the variety of solutions available, there is no excuse for failing to invest in fall prevention.

by Jonathan H. Schaefer

Jonathan Schaefer, a member of the Robinson+Cole’s Environmental, Energy + Telecommunications Group, focuses his practice on environmental compliance counseling, permitting, site remediation and occupational health and safety related to federal and state regulatory programs. He is the editor of the Robinson+Cole’s Environmental Law + Blog, focusing on the environmental, health and safety, and energy landscape.

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