Construction Site Safety: Fall Protection Requirements

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In May 2014, a Staten Island construction worker was killed when he fell 5 floors down an elevator shaft. The worker was wearing a safety harness, but it was not connected to a safety line.

Construction sites are inherently dangerous because of the presence of heavy equipment, dangerous chemicals, and flying debris. These factors contribute to the potential for serious injuries stemming from construction accidents.

People working at high elevations present the most dangerous aspect of construction sites. Work areas at construction sites are often several feet above the ground with open walls. There are also often deep, excavated areas.

Falls Are the Most Common Type of Accidents

As a result, falls are the leading cause of fatal accidents at construction sites. In 2012, 806 workers died in construction site accidents. 34.6% of these deaths were due to falls.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued regulations that employers must provide fall protection to help prevent injury and death from workers falling. Many of the injuries and deaths that result from falls could have been prevented if OSHA rules regarding fall protection had been followed.

Protection for Sides, Wall Openings and Floor Holes

When a structure is being erected, there are almost always periods when there are open sides and floor holes. To protect workers, OSHA requires the following safety precautions when employees are working at elevations that are 6 feet high or greater:

  • Guardrail systems
  • Safety net systems
  • Personal fall arrest systems that are rigged so that an employee cannot fall more than 6 feet
  • Covered or guarded floor holes
  • Construct all floor hole covers so they will effectively support two times the weight of employees, equipment, and materials that may be placed on the cover.

Protection When Using Ladders

In addition to falling through wall openings, floor openings, and excavated areas, construction site workers also fall from ladders. While ladders may seem like uncomplicated, commonly used pieces of equipment, they can be quite dangerous if not used properly.

Ladders can easily slip and fall if not positioned properly.  It is also easy for workers to lose their balance on an unsteady ladder. Employers are required to properly train employees on the safe use of ladders.

Safety precautions include:

  • Positioning portable ladders so rails extend a minimum of 3 feet above the landing
  • Using a grab device when a 3 foot extension is not possible
  • Making sure that the weight on the ladder will not cause it to slip off its support
  • Inspecting ladders for defects
  • Limiting the amount of weight on a ladder based on its capacity.

What Happened in the Staten Island Construction Accident?

In the case of the Staten Island construction worker who fell 5 stories in the elevator shaft, the deceased was wearing a safety harness, but it was not connected to a life line that would have arrested his fall.

The same day, another construction worker at the same site fell 1 story in the elevator shaft. This worker was wearing a harness that was attached to a life line. He sustained non-life-threatening injuries. While the worker who survived fell a much shorter distance, his fall was still from an elevation that required fall protection.

Would the other worker have survived had his harness been attached to a life line? OSHA and the New York City Department of Buildings are investigating the accident.

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