Hey there! If you work in construction, you know that falls are easily one of the biggest risks you face on the job. Falling from heights is one of the leading causes of injuries and fatalities in the industry.
That’s why it’s so important to understand OSHA’s rules on fall protection. Knowing when you need to use fall protection and what systems are required can literally save your life.
In this guide, we’ll break down OSHA’s fall protection standards step-by-step so you know exactly what’s required and when. I’ll explain the different types of conventional fall protection, alternative systems that can be used, and other key things like training requirements.
My goal is to make this info as easy to grasp as possible – because the bottom line is that using proper fall protection saves lives. Let’s get to it!
OSHA Fall Protection Rules and Standards
OSHA’s construction fall protection requirements are covered in Subpart M in the OSHA standards (29 CFR 1926.500-503).
The core concept of Subpart M is the 6 foot rule. This states that fall protection must be provided at any time workers are at heights of 6 feet or greater above lower levels.
There are some exceptions to the 6 foot rule, like when working on scaffolds and ladders. But in most cases, once you reach that 6 foot threshold, it’s time to bring out a conventional fall protection system.
Some examples of where fall protection would be required under the 6 foot rule include:
- Working on roofs
- By any floor holes or wall openings
- On scaffolds over 6 feet
- Around the edges of excavations
- When working near the openings of hoist areas
Now that we’ve got the 6 foot rule down, let’s look at the main types of conventional fall protection systems.
When Conventional Fall Protection is Required
OSHA recognizes 3 main types of conventional fall protection:
Guardrails provide a barrier to prevent workers from falling off edges – think of guardrails on a balcony.
For guardrail systems to meet OSHA requirements:
- The top rail needs to be 42 inches high, plus or minus 3 inches
- Screens, midrails, or mesh must be installed between the top rail and working surface when there are no walls at least 21 inches high
- Guardrails need to be able to withstand a force of 200 pounds in any direction
Safety Net Systems
Safety nets catch workers in case of a fall. They’re set up below the working surface and need to be as close as possible under where work is happening.
Some key requirements for safety nets:
- They must be able to absorb an impact equal to a free fall of 6 feet
- Nets must have a maximum mesh size of 6 inches by 6 inches
- Border ropes on nets need a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds
Personal Fall Arrest Systems
These are systems worn by workers to stop them in midair if they fall. A full body harness is connected to a lanyard or lifeline which is then attached to a secure anchor point.
- Must be rigged so a worker can’t free fall more than 6 feet
- Have to limit max arresting force on a worker to 1,800 pounds
- Components need a minimum tensile strength of 5,000 pounds
Now let’s get into some examples of activities and locations where you need conventional fall protection.
Leading edges are the edges of floors, roofs, and other walking surfaces that are under construction. Guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems must be used when working at heights of 6 feet or more on leading edges.
The only exception is if the employer can prove it’s infeasible or creates a greater hazard to use conventional fall protection – in that case they can implement a written fall protection plan that meets OSHA requirements.
Any time a worker is exposed to a fall of 6 feet or more through a wall opening, fall protection is required. That could mean installing guardrails or screens around the opening. Or having workers wear personal fall arrest systems.
Same rules as with wall openings: if a worker is 6 feet or more above lower levels and could fall through a hole in a walking/working surface, fall protection must be provided. Guardrails or covers can be used to prevent falls into holes.
Ramps and Runways
On any ramp, runway, or other walkway where workers are 6 feet or more above lower levels, guardrail systems have to be installed to prevent falls.
Around excavations that are 6 feet deep or greater, workers must be protected from falls by guardrails, fences or barricades if the excavation is not readily visible due to things like taller grass or limited visibility.
Let’s take a closer look at where you need fall protection during roofing work, because there are some specialized rules:
On low-sloped roofs (4 in 12 slope or less) that are 50 feet or less wide, a safety monitoring system can be used alone instead of conventional fall protection. If the roof is over 50 feet wide, or a steeper pitched “steep roof”, then guardrails, safety nets or personal fall arrest are required.
The exception is residential construction, where alternatives like warning lines and safety monitors can be used following specific OSHA rules.
Normal conventional fall protection (guardrails, nets, arrest systems) is required at 6 feet or greater. But OSHA allows more flexibility for residential builders. They can use warning lines, safety monitors or controlled access zones following required criteria, or implement a written fall protection plan justifying why conventional protection won’t work.
There are definitely a few specialized rules with residential, so make sure you know the requirements!
Precast Concrete Work
Working at elevations of 6 feet or more installing precast concrete members requires conventional fall protection like nets or guardrails. Or, a fall protection plan can be implemented if the employer can prove conventional protection isn’t feasible or would create a greater hazard.
Alternative Fall Protection Systems
OSHA allows some alternatives to traditional fall protection for certain tasks. Let’s look at when these can be used:
Warning Line Systems
These consist of ropes or wires rigged up around work areas to mark off an area where work can be done without conventional fall protection.
On low-slope roofs less than 50 feet wide, warning lines can be used 15 feet from the roof edge rather than guardrails or nets. There are specific criteria for proper setup, like keeping the lowest point of the rope at least 34 inches up from the roof.
Safety Monitoring Systems
This involves designating a trained “safety monitor” to watch workers for unsafe behaviors and warn them if they are getting close to an open edge without being properly protected.
Safety monitoring alone can be used on low-slope roofing projects less than 50 feet wide rather than installing nets or guardrails. Monitors must meet OSHA qualifications and requirements.
Controlled Access Zones
A controlled access zone is a work area marked off to restrict entry to only workers actively engaged in jobs that require alternative fall protection, like overhand bricklaying.
Control lines must be erected at least 6 feet from edges, with signs that limit access. Workers inside the zone need to be trained specifically.
Controlled access zones can provide flexibility for some specialized tasks that are impractical with guardrails or nets. Proper setup is crucial.
Fall Restraint Systems
Fall restraint prevents workers from reaching an unprotected edge in the first place, rather than stopping them mid-fall. Their movements are physically restrained.
Anchors need to be strong enough to prevent workers from ever moving past the point where the restraint system fully extends. When properly used, falls aren’t possible.
Fall Protection Plans
This written plan is an option for leading edge work, residential work, and precast concrete work only – and only if the employer proves conventional fall protection is infeasible or poses a greater hazard for the task.
The plan must specify each task requiring alternative protection, the hazards, and the alternative methods that will be used to ensure safety. Everything has to be documented, and the plan kept on the jobsite.
Fall protection plans can provide flexibility from conventional systems in limited situations with proper justification.
Other Fall Hazards Requiring Protection
There are a few other areas and activities where OSHA requires protection from falling objects, and fall protection for exposures that aren’t just fall height related. Let’s look at some examples:
Any time a worker is inside a hoist area located 6 feet or more above lower levels, fall protection like guardrails or personal fall arrest systems must be provided.
We talked about needing protection from falls through wall holes or openings earlier already. But workers on scaffolds or other surfaces also need overhead protection from falling objects that could come through a wall opening.
Same as with wall openings – workers near floor holes need to be protected from falling items by covers or guardrails around the hole. Falling object protection is key!
Ramps and Runways
Guardrail systems or personal fall arrest systems are required whenever workers are 6 feet or more above lower levels on ramps, runways, and other walkways or platforms.
Around any excavation 6 feet deep or greater that workers could fall into, guardrails, fences or barricades must be installed. This protects against falls, but also falling debris.
This includes things like vats of acids or conveyor belts. If a worker is in an area 6 feet or greater above dangerous equipment or machinery, standard fall protection like nets or guardrails must be provided.
Good housekeeping and containment practices have to be used to protect workers below from falling objects dislodged in overhead work areas. Construction materials and waste must be properly stored and contained, and never piled or grouped near edges unless properly secured.
Canopies can provide overhead protection from potential falling objects for workers. If used, they have to be strong enough to prevent collapse or penetration by objects that may fall onto them.
OSHA requires employers to provide fall protection training for any workers exposed to fall hazards on the job.
The training must cover:
- How to recognize fall hazards
- Procedures for setting up, inspecting and disassembling fall protection systems
- How to properly use and operate equipment like guardrails or arrest systems
- Understanding controlled access zones and safety monitoring systems
Employers have to verify training was completed by each worker through a written certification record.
Retraining is required when:
- Changes at the site render previous training obsolete
- New equipment or fall protection systems are introduced
- Workers clearly don’t have the knowledge or skills from past training
Bottom line – training is a must to keep workers safe and ensure proper use of fall protection!
We covered a ton of ground here on OSHA’s fall protection rules and requirements. The core takeaways:
- Use conventional fall protection (nets, guardrails and arrest systems) any time workers are 6 feet or more above lower levels
- Know the exceptions where alternative systems like warning lines or safety monitors can be used
- Make sure proper overhead protection is in place where falling objects could be a hazard
- Training on recognizing hazards and properly using equipment is mandatory
Falls may always be one of the biggest threats in construction, but you can work safely when you understand the essentials of fall protection. Keep this guide handy whenever you’re working at heights – it could help save a life!