Fall Hazards and Protective Measures

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Taking chances can be fatal.


Fall hazards are present at most worksites, and many workers are exposed to these hazards on a daily basis. 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. OSHA generally requires fall protection be provided at four feet in general industry, five feet in maritime and six feet in construction. However, regardless of the fall distance, fall protection must be provided when working over dangerous equipment and machinery. The importance of fall protection cannot be stressed enough.

Falls from heights are the leading cause of fatalities in construction, while falls on the same level (slips and trips) are one of the leading causes of injuries.

Some of the working conditions that contribute to fall hazards include: unprotected edges of elevated work surfaces, including roofs, scaffolds, and ladders, unprotected roof edges, roof/floor openings, and structural steel & leading edges.


Fall hazard incidents are injuries produced by impact between the injured person and the source of injury when the motion producing contact was generated by gravity.

Fall hazards in construction cause accidents such as the following:

  1. A makeshift scaffold collapsed under the weight of four workers and their equipment, seriously injuring all four.
  2. A worker carrying a sheet of plywood on a flat roof stepped into a skylight opening and fell to the level below.
  3. A roofer, while attempting to remove a roof opening cover, fell approximately 21 feet to the concrete floor below and was killed.

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1. OSHA generally requires fall protection be provided at _____ in construction.

a. 4 feet
b. 5 feet
c. 6 feet
d. 7 feet

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Edges and Openings

Skylight a worker fell through
Skylight a worker fell through

One of the most frequently cited serious OSHA violations involving roofing and fall protection is unprotected sides and edges. Almost all sites have unprotected sides and edges, wall openings, or floor holes at some point during construction. If these sides and openings are not protected at your site, injuries from falls or falling objects may result, ranging from sprains and concussions to death.

Fatalities from falls is, by far, the most common "Fatal Four" cause of death on construction sites.

  • Improperly covered or protected floor holes and openings are a common fall hazard. It's easy to step into a hole or opening when carrying something that blocks one’s forward view.
  • Roofing falls are the leading cause of roofing injuries and fatalities. Roofing, siding and sheet metal work have the highest rate of occupational injuries and illnesses for a non-manufacturing industry.

Steel Erection

Workers involved in steel erection are exposed to fall hazards. According to The Construction Chart Book (CPWR, December, 2007), more ironworkers are killed from falls than workers in any other construction occupation. The rate of work-related deaths among ironworkers is 10 times higher than the construction average. The most frequently cited serious OSHA violations involving steel erection are fall protection, fall hazard training and fall protection for connectors.

In steel erection, workers on walking/working surfaces with unprotected sides or edges above 15 feet must be protected (There are some exceptions for connectors and workers working in controlled decking zones for heights between 15 and 30 feet.

Practice Identifying Hazards

Try to identify the hazards present in the image below. Then, click on the image to see if you correctly identified the hazards.

Unprotected edge
Click to review hazards

2. Which of the following is, by far, the most common "Fatal Four" cause of fatalities on construction sites?

a. Fall accidents
b. Struck-by accidents
c. Caught-in accidents
d. Electrocutions

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Example of improper scaffold construction.
Example of improper scaffold construction.

Improper Scaffold Construction

Working with heavy equipment and building materials on the limited space of a scaffold is difficult. Without fall protection or safe access, it becomes hazardous. Falls from improperly constructed scaffolds can result in injuries ranging from sprains to death. Guardrails or personal fall arrest systems for fall prevention/protection are required for workers on platforms 10 feet or higher.

The majority of the workers injured in scaffold accidents attribute the accident to factors like the planking or support giving way, or to lack of guardrails or other fall protection. OSHA’s most frequently cited serious scaffold violations include lack of fall protection; scaffold access; use of aerial lifts without body belts and lanyards, platform construction and no worker training.

Practice Identifying Hazards

Try to identify the hazards in the image below. Then, click on the image to see if you correctly identified the hazards.

Improper scaffold construction
Click to review hazards

3. Guardrails or personal fall arrest systems for fall prevention/protection are required for workers on platforms _____.

a. above 4 feet
b. at least 8 feet high
c. 10 feet or higher
d. over 20 feet high

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Unsafe Portable Ladders

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Never stand on top of a portable ladder.

If a portable ladder is not safely positioned each time you use it, you could fall from the ladder. While you are on a ladder, it may move and slip from its supports. You can also lose your balance while getting on or off an unsteady ladder. Falls from ladders can cause injuries, ranging from sprains to death.

BLS data show that falls from ladders account for more than 100 fatalities each year. Factors that contribute to falls from ladders are ladder slip (top or bottom), overreaching, ladder placement, slipping on rungs/steps, defective equipment, and improper ladder selection for a given task. Frequently cited OSHA ladder violations include:

  • not having a portable ladder extend 3 feet above the landing,
  • no worker training, and
  • improper use of the top of stepladders.

Practice Identifying Hazards

Try to identify the hazards present in the image below. Then click on the image to see if you correctly identified the hazards.

Unsafe portable ladders
Click to review hazards

4. All of the following factors contribute to over 100 fatalities a year due to falls from ladders, EXCEPT _____.

a. defective ladders
b. ladder slips
c. ladder material
d. improper selection

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Protective Measures

Use Fall Protection Equipment

Image of worker next to guardrails
In general, it is better to use fall prevention systems, such as guardrails.

The three generally acceptable methods of protection for workers on a construction site who are exposed to vertical drops of 6 feet or more are guardrails, safety net systems, and personal fall arrest systems.

  • Guardrails are considered prevention systems, as they stop you from having a fall in the first place.
  • Safety net systems are designed to catch you and break your fall. They must be placed as close as practicable beneath your working surface, but never more than 30 feet below.
  • A personal fall arrest system consists of an anchorage, connectors, and a full-body harness that work together to break your fall.

When working next to a fall prevention barrier from an elevated position, such as a step ladder next to a guardrail, the guardrail no longer serves as a fall protection device. Additional protection is needed.

In general, it is better to use fall prevention systems, such as guardrails, than fall protection systems, such as safety nets/fall arrest devices. That’s because prevention systems prevent falls from occurring in the first place.

Scaffold work requires guardrails or a personal fall arrest system on any platform 10 feet or higher. Also, do not climb cross-bracing as a means of access; your employer must provide safe access. Ensure your fall protection equipment is right for the work you are doing, in good condition, and used properly. Remember, your employer needs to provide you with protection to prevent falls at your worksite. Please take a moment to refer to Appendix A to review information regarding, "Guardrail and Safety Net Systems", and "Personal Fall Arrest Systems".

The anchorage for a worker’s personal fall arrest equipment must be independent of any anchorage used to support or suspend platforms. It must be able to support at least 5,000 lbs. per worker attached to it.

5. Which of the following would be the preferred method to protect workers from falls?

a. Safety belts
b. Guardrails
c. Safety nets
d. Fall arrest devices

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Safe Ladder Use

There are many ways you can prevent a fall from a ladder—below are a few suggestions to get you started.

Choose the Right Ladder for the Job

First, you need to make sure a ladder is the best equipment for what you need to do. Would scaffolding or a mechanical lift be better?

Many times, the ladder is the only physical support you have while you are working. If it fails, you can fall. That's why it is so important to find the right ladder when you do need to use one. The three main types of ladders—step ladders, straight ladders, and extension ladders—are used in different situations for different tasks.

Step ladder
Step ladder
Extension ladder
Extension ladder
Straight ladder
Straight ladder

Before you start using a ladder, ask yourself two questions.

Image of worker next to guardrails
Make sure the ladder is long enough and placed at a stable angle.

Is the ladder long enough? It should be long enough to set it at a stable angle and still extend over the top edge to give you something to hold on to when you get on the ladder to descend. Setting the ladder at the right angle helps you keep your balance on the ladder. It also helps keep the ladder from falling backward.

  • Make sure the ladder extends 3 feet (3 rungs; 0.9 meters) above the surface you will be working on.
  • Make sure the ladder is placed at a stable angle. For every four feet (1.2m) high the ladder is, the base should be 1 foot (.3 m) out from the wall.

For example, if you will be working on a 10 foot-high roof (3 m), you need a ladder that is at least 14 feet (4.25 m) long. The base should be 2 ½ feet (.75 m) from the wall.

Is the ladder in good working condition? It shouldn't be missing pieces or be cracked or otherwise damaged. Check the duty rating on extension ladders – is it high enough for the weight you will be putting on it? Longer ladders don't always have higher duty ratings, so be sure to check. In construction, the most common ratings are:

  • Heavy Duty (I) supports up to 250 pounds (113 kg).
  • Extra heavy duty (IA) supports up to 300 pounds (136 kg).
  • Special duty (IAA) supports up to 375 pounds (170 kg).

6. How far should the ladder extend above the surface you will be working on?

a. At least one foot
b. Two feet or more
c. Three feet
d. One to four feet

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Safe Ladder Use (Continued)

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Use tool belts or install rope and pulley systems.

Secure the Ladder

It is necessary to tie the top and bottom of a ladder to fixed points when:

  • the ladder doesn't extend 3’ above the landing,
  • it is contacting slippery surfaces; or
  • where it could be displaced by work activities or traffic.

Tie both sides of the top of the ladder to a fixed point on the roof or another high surface near where you are working. The bottom should be tied to a fixed point on the ground. Securing the ladder in this way prevents the ladder from sliding side-to-side or falling backward and prevents the base from sliding.

Tying the ladder off at the beginning of the day and untying it at the end of the day will only take you about five minutes. It can make all the difference for your safety. If you need to move the ladder around, allow extra time for this important step or consider using something else, such as a scaffold.

Carrying Tools While Climbing the Ladder

Take precautions when you are going up or down a ladder. Instead of carrying tools, boards, or other materials in your hands, use a tool belt, install a rope and pulley system, or tie a rope around your materials and pull them up once you have reached the work surface. Ask for help if you need to use more than one hand to pull them up.

Carrying tools or anything else in your hands as you climb the ladder can throw you off balance. When you climb a ladder, always use at least one hand to grasp the ladder when going up or down.

7. In which of the following situations must a fixed ladder be secured at the top and bottom?

a. The ladder extends more than three feet above the landing
b. The ladder is an extension type
c. The ladder is made of wood
d. The ladder is contacting slippery surfaces

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Safe Ladder Use (Continued)

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Fireman illustrating 3-Point Contact.


This method is not the preferred method for climbing ladders. The three-point-contact method requires a worker to depend solely on three points of contact with the ladder. The stomach or palm are examples of unstable points of contact; these points of contact are unreliable and lead to a false sense of stability.

Though some argue leaning against a surface is acceptable as a point of contact, there is a significant problem with this assumption. For example, if a worker has both feet on a ladder while resting one palm on the roof (three-point contact) they will not be able to prevent a fall if both feet were to slip.


On the other hand, the three-point-control method requires a worker to use three of his or her four limbs for reliable, stable support. This climbing strategy could prevent many of the ladder falls and deaths occurring throughout the United States and world. The three-point-control method requires the worker to place his hand on the ladder in a way to support the full weight of the body if needed in an emergency. The breakaway force from a vertical rail is too great for a worker, male or female, to fully support their weight if only gripping with one hand. During a fall, the hand would slide down the bar until it contacts a rung on the ladder. The hand would most likely disconnect from the ladder when it collides with the rung. A vertical grip can only support approximately 50 percent of person’s bodyweight.

Because the three-point contact method does not require reliable, stable support, it is not the preferred method to use when on a ladder.

If a worker is using the three-point-control method and has both feet on the ladder and is gripping a horizontal rung, they are much less likely to fall if both of their feet were to slip. When a worker uses a horizontal grip, it allows for about a 75 percent to 94 percent increase in breakaway force. This compares to using a vertical grip, which allows the worker to hold their bodyweight and prevent a fall.

Keeping three-point-control for good support is critical while a worker is climbing, moving or working at an elevation. It is important to note, the three-point-control method is not a substitution for the use of fall protection equipment.

8. Which climbing strategy requires three of a worker's limbs for reliable, stable support when climbing a ladder?

a. Three-Point-Break
b. Three-Point-Contact
c. Three-Point-Control
d. Three-Point-Limb

Next Section

Safe Ladder Use (Continued)

Ladder Angle

A non-self-supporting ladder should have a set-up angle of about 75 degrees — a 4:1 ratio of the ladder’s working length to set-back distance.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand at the base of the ladder with your toes touching the rails.
  • Extend your arms straight out in front of you.
  • If the tips of your finger just touch the rung nearest your shoulder level, the angle of your ladder has a 4:1 ratio.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed an easy-to-use interactive ladder safety application for smartphones. The NIOSH Ladder Safety application features a multimodal indicator, which uses visual and sound signals to assist the user in positioning an extension ladder at an optimal angle.

The application provides graphic-oriented interactive reference materials, safety guidelines and checklists for extension ladder selection, inspection, accessorizing, and use. It is intended to help a wide range of ladder users, employers, and safety professionals, with their ladder-related safety needs.

Here is a link to download the phone application:


Apple iOS

9. If a ladder’s working length is 12 feet, what should the ladder’s set back distance be?

a. 2 feet
b. 3 feet
c. 4 feet
d. 5 feet

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