The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for establishing standards and ensuring the safety of American workplaces. The fall protection regulations enforced by OSHA are intended to prevent serious injuries and fatalities due to falls from higher elevations and may constitute a first line of defense for maintenance workers and other individuals who must perform their work on rooftops or suspended platforms.

Basics of OSHA Fall Protection

Depending on the work environment, OSHA fall protection regulations may require personal fall arrest systems, physical barriers to shield workers from dangerous areas or a combination of both of these systems to ensure optimal protection in elevated areas.

  • Personal fall arrest devices include safety nets to catch workers if they fall and lifeline systems that work with harnesses to stop falls within a relatively short distance.
  • Guardrails and other protective barriers are designed to prevent workers from venturing into unsafe areas and to provide a physical layer of shielding between the working environment and areas in which falls could occur to include ramps, walkways and openings.

OSHA also requires employers to maintain written records of their safety plans and any training given to staff members. The results of the annual fall protection system inspection should also be documented. If fall protection recertification is required, the steps taken and procedures instituted for this process should be recorded and provided to OSHA personnel upon request.

OSHA Requirements for Personal Fall Arrest Systems

Individual fall arrest systems must be secured to an anchorage located above or at the same level as the worker. This safety equipment typically includes a harness worn by the staff member, connectors and lifeline that are used to secure the restraint device to a solid anchorage and brakes or decelerators to prevent excessive speed during descent.

  • If a harness is used to provide fall arrest protection, the maximum arresting force is limited to 1,800 pounds.
  • Fall arrest systems must not allow the worker to fall more than six feet or to reach a lower level of scaffolding before stopping the fall.
  • Safety nets must be installed as close as is practical to the level at which a fall could occur to reduce the distance necessary for arresting the fall.
  • Belts are no longer allowed to be incorporated as part of an OSHA-approved fall arrest system.

Personal fall arrest equipment must be inspected regularly to ensure that it is in proper working order and capable of sustaining the weight and the impact energy likely during an accidental fall.

OSHA Requirements for Physical Barriers

Guardrails are the most common form of physical barrier used in high-elevation workplaces and are available in a variety of configurations. OSHA regulations provide guidance for maintenance companies in the design of these safety systems:

  • The top edge of the guardrail must be 39 to 45 inches above the working surface and must be strong enough to stand up to an impact constituting 200 pounds of pressure.
  • Unless another barrier is present between the guardrail and the work surface, an intermediate rail must also be placed midway between the top rail and the working level. This railing must be capable of sustaining a 150-pound impact.
  • Mesh or screening can be used as a substitute for the mid-range railing; however, it must also be able to absorb up to 150 pounds of direct force.
  • Companies can opt for individual fall-arrest systems or can install guardrails and other physical barriers. If guardrails are selected, however, they must be installed properly and in a way that prevents falls effectively.
  • Training is required for all staff members to ensure safer work habits and proper use of fall arrest equipment and guardrails in elevated areas of the worksite.

By adhering to all OSHA regulations and maintaining meticulous records regarding required training, inspection results and other elements of the corporate safety plan, most building owners and maintenance companies can improve safety for their workers and reduce the risks of serious harm in the workplace environment.

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