Home > Industry News

Fall Safety and Protection Tips for the Construction Industry

Fall Safety and Protection Tips for the Construction Industry

Figure 1 shows the most likely causes of death from falls in the construction industry.

Investments in task planning, training, and fall-prevention equipment pay off

By Jim Goss, Senior Safety Consultant, HCSS

Falls are the leading cause of death on construction sites, representing more than 38 percent of all annual fatalities. While the construction industry has made great strides, more must be done to protect our most precious resource – our people. Proactive task planning for the fall exposures most likely for specific projects, frequent training on how to avoid fall exposures and risks, and investments in the most protective fall safety equipment are three key ways to reduce exposure to ever-present fall risks. A robust fall protection program will also reduce the potential for Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) fines as well as lower costs of injuries from falls. 

Falls hazards in the construction industry

According to OSHA’s Fall Protection Overview [1], “A fall hazard is anything at your worksite that could cause you to lose your balance or lose bodily support and result in a fall. Any walking or working surface can be a potential fall hazard. Any time you are working at a height of four feet or more, you are at risk.” 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics [2] notes that falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. In 2021, there were 378 fatalities – a rate of 1.4 fatalities a day, or 38.3 percent of all fatalities. (Over the last 10 years, falls account for 36.6 percent of all fatalities in the construction industry.) 

The cost of care for injuries related to falls is a financial burden for the entire construction industry. According to the National Safety Council Injury Facts, lost time averages from all injuries is about $37,500, while the cost of falls is four times that amount.[3] 

Fall protection regulations and best practices

Fall protection is defined as a series of reasonable steps taken to eliminate or control the injurious effects of an unintentional fall while accessing or working at height. 

OSHA does not require a company to have a written fall protection/prevention program, but it does require employers to provide a training program for each employee who might be exposed to fall hazards. The program must enable each employee to recognize the hazards of falling and train each employee in the procedures that should be followed to minimize these hazards.

According to OSHA, “Falls are among the most common causes of serious work related injuries and deaths. Employers must set up the work place to prevent employees from falling off of overhead platforms, elevated work stations or into holes in the floor and walls…OSHA requires that fall protection be provided at elevations of four feet in general industry workplaces, five feet in shipyards, six feet in the construction industry and eight feet in longshoring operations. In addition, OSHA requires that fall protection be provided when working over dangerous equipment and machinery, regardless of the fall distance.” [1]

To meet these guidelines, companies should follow best practices by developing a written program with at least these elements:

  • Hierarchy of fall protection controls (see Table 1)
  • Employee training and responsibilities
  • Employer responsibilities
  • Fall protection / prevention systems used
  • Guardrails, rescue, positioning, warning lines

In May 2023, the US Department of Labor announced a “national emphasis program” to reduce and prevent workplace falls, which it called the leading cause of fatal workplace injuries and the violation the agency cites most frequently in construction industry inspections. [4]  

The new OSHA initiative aligns enforcement and outreach efforts to protect workers. The emphasis program will focus on reducing fall-related injuries and fatalities for people working at heights in all industries. The targeted enforcement program is based on historical Bureau of Labor Statistics data and OSHA enforcement history. BLS data shows that of the 5,190 fatal workplace injuries in 2021, 680 were associated with falls from elevations, about 13 percent of all deaths.

Construction workers make up 4.5 percent of the American workforce, yet more than half all OSHA inspections performed are of construction sites. They are always under a microscope. Statistics from an OSHA presentation to AGC Safety Committee in January 2023 show that the top 10 violations in construction for the period 10/1/21 to 9/30/22 were overwhelmingly fall related. See Table 2, which includes statistics from an OSHA presentation to AGC Safety Committee January 2023.

Conduct proactive fall-protection planning before construction tasks begin

Given the magnitude of the risk of falls at construction sites, proactive planning for construction tasks with fall hazards is a critical first step. To develop the most protective fall protection program, begin by focusing on the fall exposures that relate to the specific project, including fall risks for both contractors and subcontractors. For example, HCSS customers’ fall risks stem primarily from bridge job operations and equipment. Look at your specific hazards beforehand and plan them out, including rescue procedures and individual responsibilities in the event of a fall. 

Conducting proper planning for each task is no easy feat, and that is where user-friendly health and safety software can help. For example, HCSS Health and Safety was designed specifically as a crew-based program for use by foremen and supervisors in the field, helping them “own” fall protection and safety. 

With safety inspection checklists (including one specifically on fall protection), more than 2200 toolbox talks, Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) and Job Safety Analysis (JSA) forms geared towards falls, safety observations, incidents reporting, near miss reporting, safety forms, and certification tracking geared to field entry, the crew has the right tools at hand to plan all the tasks that involve fall exposure. This type of system ensures that the entire crew, not just the safety officer, has eyes and ears in the field and can contribute to fall protection.

Frequent training is essential

There is simply not enough attention paid to training of construction workers on what to look for to avoid fall risks and protect against falls. Rather than being reactive, superintendents should use their task planning, along with Job Hazard Analysis (JHAs), inspections, and more frequent meetings to discuss fall safety and reinforce best practices. Discuss fall protection at each and every toolbox talk, not just once a month, as is routinely done.

Here again, software can help. For example, HCSS construction safety meeting software includes paperless tracking of every safety meeting and training session, so safety managers can easily record safety meetings, capture custom toolbox talks, and keep track of attendee signatures. Paperless tracking makes the daily task of documenting toolbox talks and tracking safety meetings much easier, contributing to that goal of crew ownership of safety. 

One other important thought – additional training may be needed to change the mindset of workers who have grown up in an industry with a safety culture featuring an acceptance of fall risks and dangers, and even an attitude that associated risk acceptance with being “manly.” Including more frequent fall protection training can help concentrate safety efforts and move the culture along. 

Invest in the best fall protection equipment 

Here is how I see it – invest in what counts. If you are on your feet a lot, invest in boots; if you travel for a living, invest in luggage. So it goes with fall protection equipment. If we do not invest in our fall protection equipment and do not take into account that construction workers have to wear it for as long as 10-12 hours a day, it will not work. Buy good equipment and make it comfortable and useable and workers will wear it. Be sure that fall protection equipment for women is customizable and designed to fit the female body shape, with adjustable straps that ensure a snug and secure fit. 

One major issue has been lanyards, which are now retractable for leading edge work. In the past, 98 percent of lanyards were six feet, so if workers tied off and fell, they could still fall a distance of six feet. With today’s retractable lanyards, in the event of a fall, the worker would only fall between 4-12 inches, a significant improvement. 

Fall prevention systems may cost between $200 and $3000 – do not opt for the lowest or highest end – something in the middle will work. Start with a good harness system with two lanyards and a good anchorage point to tie up to. 

In other words, invest in things that matter – invest more on equipment to save on the cost of injuries. Do not be satisfied with OSHA fall protection equipment requirements – after all, OSHA is still working off a 1992 standard, so it is not necessarily looking at the best in terms of safety equipment. 

An investment in safety equipment comes back five to six times in injury prevention. If someone falls off a ladder or bridge deck, even if the injury is not fatal, they usually have a major injury to their lower extremities. So a thousand dollar investment in equipment offsets the potential for both a $150,000 OHSA fine and the medical cost of the injury. 


[1] Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Fall Protection https://www.osha.gov/fall-protection, retrieved 10/18/2023.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, TED: The Economics Daily, Construction deaths due to falls, slips, and trips increased 5.9 percent in 2021, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2023/construction-deaths-due-to-falls-slips-and-trips-increased-5-9-percent-in-2021.htm, retrieved 4/19/2024. 

[3] National Safety Council Injury Facts, https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/, retrieved 4/18/2024.

[4] OSHA National News Release, US Department of Labor announces national emphasis program to reduce, prevent workplace falls, a leading cause of workplace fatalities, https://www.osha.gov/news/newsreleases/national/05012023, retrieved 10/18/2023.