Fall Protection 101: The Basics Of Fall Protection

basics of fall protection for working at height

Why Being Afraid of Heights is a Good Thing

Falls are the number one cause of deaths AND the number one cited OSHA violation on construction sites. So if OSHA swings in to “say hi”, you can bet your bonus that one of the first things they’ll look at is your fall protection. The OSHA regulations surrounding fall protection are extensive, and complying with these regulations can be especially challenging for small business owners or younger safety professionals who may not have the experience to maintain 100% compliance. Even seasoned safety vets can get tripped up with a curve-ball question or scenario. But don’t sweat it. A well organized and diligent safety pro has nothing to fear. So back away (6 feet) from the (leading) edge, and let’s talk it through.

Learning the Ropes

OSHA provides some fantastic resources on fall protection, but before you go digging in their archive make sure you’re looking within the correct industry because it makes a difference. Probably the most important thing you need to know about fall protection is when a worker is required to have it (and of course, making sure your workers actually wear it when they need to). Burn this into your brain. A worker is required to wear fall protection when they are working at heights above...

  • Four feet for general industry
  • Five feet for shipyards
  • Six feet for the construction
  • Eight feet for longshore operations

These numbers will be your starting points. So if you have someone working above the respective height of your industry, that should be a mental trigger.

Approaching the Hazard

Now that you’ve identified that a fall hazard exists, it’s time for the fun part, selecting the best type of fall protection for your situation. Every fall hazard scenario is unique and the solution will likely be different each time, so it’s important to approach each problem systematically. Try to create a mental (or physical) checklist to run through when looking at each hazard to determine the most appropriate type of fall protection. When determining the best type of fall protection to use, the best practice is to try and implement these fall protection methods in the following order...


The safest and cheapest fall protection solution will always be defaulting to your hierarchy of controls and removing or eliminating the worker from the situation altogether.


Guardrails are installed near the leading edge of a working surface and are normally permanently fixed, making them a great long term solution. The top of the guardrail must be 42 inches, plus or minus 3 inches, above the working surface. Guardrails are a physical barrier that prevents workers from going over the edge, making them one of the most effective methods of fall protection.

Fall Restraint

Fall restraint systems are designed to keep workers from reaching the edge. Lanyards and anchor points are configured so that users can not go beyond the point and into an area where fall hazards exist. Think of a dog on a leash, the dog's radius of movement is only as far as the leash will allow. Same concept here. The benefits of this system are clear because the possibility of a fall is eliminated, along with the potential for serious injury or death.

Fall Arrest

If you are unable to implement any of the methods outlined above, a fall arrest system should be your last resort. Fall arrest systems are designed to stop the user from hitting the level below and minimize injury, meaning in order for it to work someone actually has to fall. Although you remove the primary fall hazard, workers are still potentially exposed to a whiplash injury or suspension trauma (harness cutting off circulation after a fall).

fall protection equipment training and inspection


Workers need to be trained on how to recognize and mitigate fall hazards. If a worker is required to wear fall protection they need to get trained up on how to inspect and care for that equipment. Employees who have received this training must get retrained if they demonstrate a lack of knowledge, or if there has been a change in the workplace rendering the old training obsolete.

Training must be conducted by a competent person, or someone who has demonstrated, through experience and/or training, the ability to identify fall hazards, and the corrective measures needed to eliminate them. Typically this is someone within your company, however, you can always bring in an outside training rep if you’re unsure.


Fall protection equipment (lanyards, harnesses, other hardware) needs to be inspected by a competent person before each use AND at least once a year, or more frequently if required by the manufacturer’s instructions. Fall protection should also be evaluated if it has been used to arrest a fall. Some things to look for during the inspection:

  • Expired equipment
  • An illegible tag
  • Sharp edges and cracks on hardware (D-rings, hooks, etc.)
  • Broken or damaged stitching or webbing
  • Evidence of chemical damage

Fall protection and rescue equipment should be immediately taken out of service when any inspection reveals excessive damage or wear. The inspection will vary based on the type of equipment you are inspecting. If you’re unsure of what to look for during an inspection give the manufacturer a call to get yourself pointed in the right direction.


That’s Fall Protection 101. There are plenty more resources to help keep your business compliant. If you’d like to dig deeper you can check out the OSHA's fall protection resource available on their website.

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