Exploring Fall Protection Systems and Their Alignment with OSHA’s Hierarchy of Controls
As we dive into the various systems that exist for fall protection, it is imperative that we have a full understanding of OSHA’s hierarchy of controls including: eliminating the hazard, passive protection, restraint systems, fall arrest, and admin controls.
The absolute win of any comprehensive safety strategy starts with eliminating hazards. For fall protection, this could involve designing the work process or the site itself in such a way that working at heights isn’t necessary. This proactive approach effectively removes the risk at its source and sets the tone for an inherently safer work environment. Although this is not feasible in many scenarios, it is OSHA’s favorite and most effective fall protection strategy.
Passive Fall Protection
This next level of protection introduces safeguards that require no active participation from your staff. Think guardrails, parapet walls, covers, etc. These measures form a physical barrier between your team members and the fall hazard, providing a layer of protection that doesn’t depend on individual actions, making it a robust and reliable line of defense. When hazard elimination is not feasible, this is the next best option.
One step further, we enter the realm of fall restraint systems. This active measure involves equipment such as body belts or harnesses tethered to an anchor that prevents your co-workers from reaching the fall hazard. While it requires training and proper usage for your team, this solution works well in situations or at sites where barriers or guardrails cannot be used. This is the midpoint in OSHA’s hierarchy of controls for fall protection.
Fall Arrest Systems
For times when more effective controls are not feasible, fall arrest systems serve as one of the last resorts to save lives. These systems aren’t about preventing the fall, but rather about managing them effectively to minimize injury to your workers. Comprised of components like full-body harnesses, energy-absorbing lanyards, and self-retracting lifelines, these systems work in concert to arrest a fall mid-descent, thereby turning a potentially dangerous fall into a controlled descent and safe stop for recovery.
At the tail end of OSHA’s hierarchy, we have administrative controls. This control involves changes in work procedures, like safety training, scheduling work to minimize exposure to fall hazards, and installing warning systems. While these measures don’t directly remove the hazard or limit a fall, they reduce the probability of falls by influencing worker behavior and promoting a safety-conscious work environment. Administrative controls are at the bottom of the hierarchy for a reason and should only be used when all other options have been exhausted as they are the least effective fall protection strategy.