When working on construction projects, the leading cause of death and injury among workers is falling. In residential construction, work that is usually restricted to home building in neighborhoods, risks can sometimes be underestimated. In turn, risks might be taken that would never occur in the course of commercial construction, where workers may be working many, many stories up in the air. The fact is, however, even short falls can be fatal, and they can definitely cause injury. In fact, many slipping or falling injuries in the workplace can occur when a worker is just four to six feet above the ground. In this article, we’re going to review several methods of fall protection for residential construction workers and also take a look at the responsibilities OSHA has placed upon contractors in order to keep their employees safe.
Fall Protection Basics
Whenever a worker will be more than six feet above the immediately preceding lower level, OSHA guidelines require that you implement some sort of system to arrest or prevent falls. In most cases, this means you’ll be using one of three primary methods of accomplishing this; these are namely net, guard rail, and personal fall arrest systems. There are a few caveats to be aware of, but we’ll get to those later on.
Under 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(13), workers engaged in residential construction six (6) feet or more above lower levels must be protected by conventional fall protection (in other words, guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems) or other fall protection measures allowed elsewhere in 1926.501(b).
OSHA - Fall Protection in Residential Construction
To start off, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each type of prevention system and cases in which you might use it.
Personal Fall Arrest Systems
One common fall prevention method involves personal systems that will stop a worker from reaching the ground if they do fall off of the work site. In most every case, these involve the worker wearing a harness with a cable attached to the center of the back or two cables at the shoulders. The cable is then attached to either a fixed point on the construction site or to a specially designed device that is bolted down or otherwise attached to the structure. These systems are commonly useful for rooftop work, as the base piece of many models easily attaches to the peak of the roof. One potential downside of these systems is that they can not only be expensive, but the harnesses need to be fitted properly in order to not restrict movement. Also, improvised versions of these devices can leave cables or ropes unwound and actually pose a tripping hazard as workers walk about. As for the pros, they do provide a distinct advantage over net and and guard rail systems in that they take up relatively little space and require much less setup and take-down time than other systems.
Net systems are actually less common in residential construction than they are in commercial projects. This is due to two factors: The first is that they require extensive setup time and planning and have to be setup to cover very specific areas in order to remain effective. The second is that net systems can easily get in the way or be logistically difficult to place in a residential project. If you are going to use a net system to curb falling dangers, make sure that the net is no more than 30 feet below any potential fall points it is meant to protect. If used around the outside perimeter of a site, you need to make sure that the net extends out far enough to cover the full potential range of falls.
A very common system to use on just about any type of construction project involves the use of guardrails. Basically, guardrails do not arrest falls but rather prevent them from happening in the first place. Guardrail systems are very common in construction sites because they integrate naturally with scaffolding and so the system you’re using to gain height and to prevent falling injuries can be one in the same. As with net systems, these can be a chore to setup, and might have to be constantly adjusted given the speed at which most residential projects proceed.
Changes in 2011
The embedded video you’ll notice focuses on several major changes to the residential fall prevention guidelines. In September of 2011, OSHA released a revision to the provisional guidelines they’d previously laid out for fall protection in residential sites. Going on three years now since the changes were implemented, many employers still aren’t aware of the major alterations that were made. While no actual laws were changed, there were some revisions contractors would do well to make note of. One of the largest changes you’ll notice is the change to when other secondary types of fall protection can be used (the video also gives specific reference points for you to look into the details of these). Basically, in order to use fall protection systems beyond the three primary types discussed above, employers will need to be able to show, in writing, why your specific project requires them. In some cases, this might be because the most commonly used methods might actually create additional hazards for your specific project. Alternatively, if you have tried other methods and they’ve proved to not be feasible for the specified project and site, you can use this as your rationale. Speaking of a specific project, it’s worth noting that your rationale for using other methods of fall prevention is limited to the specific job you wrote it for, and you need to do it all again if you run into a similar situation in the future.
In most cases, nets, personal fall arrest systems, and guardrail systems will be plenty to keep your workers safe from any kind of falling hazards. In any situation, it is essential that you look to the specifics of your job and its requirements before worrying about which kind of residential fall protection you’re going to use. In general, you want to make sure that any system you use is maintained properly and covered or taken down overnight, especially when there is a risk of rain or weather than might turn it into a hazard for workers the next day. Consult with workers personally to find out which systems they prefer and why, if you’ve been disconnected from the physical labor on-site operations for a while, you could always use a check in with those on the ground floor. For more details, check out the video embedded on this page.
Check out this Fall Protection Infographic by our Creative Safety Publishing team.