Falls from heights are the second-leading fatal workplace occurrence. Workers in the construction industry, in particular, are most at risk of falling. Additionally, construction workers log the most non-fatal cases involving days away from work each year—according to the National Safety Council.
Falls from ladders, scaffolding, and lifts can cause serious injury even when the distance from the ground doesn’t seem that dangerous. As a small business owner, you’ll need to ensure that you’re taking all suitable precautions to lower your workers’ risk of falling. You should ensure that workers use the proper equipment and appropriate safety procedures for each task. It’s also important that equipment and other items are secure when working at height, since falling tools can also cause injury.
How to make working at heights safer for employees
“Working at height” refers to any work where a person could potentially fall and injure themselves. The individual could fall from a ladder, through an opening on the floor, or even working on a loading dock.
In general industries, fall protection is required by OSHA for any height change of 4 feet or more.
OSHA’s standards for the construction industry require the use of fall protection when employees are working at heights 6 feet or higher. This also applies at heights of less than 6 feet when they’re working near dangerous equipment, such as machinery with open drive belts, pulleys, or gears, or open vats of degreasing agents or acid.
To ensure a safe work environment, employers should:
- Assess the workplace to determine if walking or working surfaces have the strength and structural integrity to safely support workers
- Determine whether fall protection is required in your industry, and if so, provide workers with fall protection systems that comply with OSHA’s industry standards.
Fall protection can be provided by using “conventional fall protection,” including guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems. Other systems and methods of fall protection may be used when workers perform certain activities.
9 tips to help reduce the risk of falling
Here are 9 safety tips to help lower the risk of injury or death for employees working at height:
1. Encourage workers to do as many tasks as possible from the ground.
2. Make sure workers can safely move to and from the area where they are working at height.
3. Conduct drills for emergency evacuations and rescues.
4. Install railings where possible.
5. Consider using Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS), such as full-body harnesses that meet ANSI standards. Look for features like extra D-rings, fireproof material, or arc-safe designs, depending on the work being performed. Also provide the right lanyards, depending on height. A worker may need a retractable lanyard instead of a 6’ lanyard. Work situations vary, so be sure to give your employees the proper protection for the specific task.
6. Inspect and maintain personal protective equipment (PPE). Harnesses and lanyards should be inspected by an expert at least annually and by the worker before each use. It’s important that anyone using the device knows what to check for and what to do if they uncover an issue.
7. When used improperly, ladders can be dangerous, so be sure that it’s the best solution for the task. Then, ensure that your employees are trained to use a ladder properly. Be careful to:
- Avoid overloading the ladders with equipment or materials
- Avoid reaching too far while on a ladder or stepladder
- Avoid leaning or placing the ladder on fragile surfaces
- For extension ladders, extend the ladder 3 feet past the level to which you are climbing
- For every 4 feet high that an extension ladder rises, place the base of the ladder 1 foot away from the structure, and always keep 3 points of contact with the ladder (two legs and one hand, or two hands and one leg)
- For fixed ladders over 24’ high, equip workers with a ladder safety system that includes a lanyard, harness, and a continuous cable or rigid rail that runs the height of the ladder (also, ensure the top of the ladder is properly protected)
8. In some situations, a scaffold may be better to use than a ladder when working at heights—like when painting a house. At other times, a lift may be more appropriate. Depending on the type of lift, workers may need to wear a harness and lanyard. It’s important to note that any person in a boom lift—at any time or height—must be properly tied-off.
9. Lastly, proper training on all equipment and scenarios is essential. Not only is training required by law, but it can mean the difference between life and death for your valued employees.
Thanks for reading! Please note that this content is intended for educational purposes only. As best practices change regularly, you should refer to your trusted advisor for specific counsel. If you’re a small business owner, learn more about workplace safety or check your workers’ comp rate in 3 minutes.