By Sara Wesche

Occupational falls continue to be one of the highest recordable incidents in industry. They are the third leading cause of death, following motor vehicle accidents and struck by incidents. According to the United States based National Safety Council, in 2006 falls accounted for 847 deaths and 253,440 lost work days (National Safety Council, 2010).

The majority of falls that occur in industry are the result of falls to a lower level, versus a slip or fall on the same level. 746 of the aforementioned 847 fatal falls were the result of working at heights (National Safety Council, 2010).

Based on data from the NIOSH National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities (NTOF) Surveillance System, falls from elevations were the fourth leading cause of workplace deaths from 1980 through 1994.

The 8,102 deaths due to falls from elevations accounted for 10% of all occupational fatalities during this period and an average of 540 deaths per year. (CDC, 2009).

In 2005/2006, falls from height accounted for 46 fatal accidents at work and approximately 3,350 major injuries. They remain the single biggest cause of workplace deaths and one of the main causes of major injury.

Fall hazards are abundant in industry and can range from something as seemingly innocent as changing a lightbulb on a step ladder, to washing windows 200 stories in the air.

In industries such as construction and maintenance fall hazards are a constant issue. Falls are the number one cause of occupational fatalities in construction, and are often the result of falling from a structure or scaffolding.

Even if you do not work in construction, it is important to remember that fall hazards are?present in almost every industry.

Falls from heights are traumatic to the body and usually result in severe injury, if not death.

At the start of an accidental fall, it takes the average person at least half of a second just to realise that they are falling; in that same time period, they have already travelled more than four vertical feet.

By the time they begin to react to the knowledge that they are falling, they have fallen more than seven feet – too far in most cases for the individual to save him or herself.

By the time one second has passed, the unprotected individual will have gathered enough speed to have dropped 16 feet.

The impact of an accidental fall can result in multiple injuries to the body, most commonly affecting the back. When people fall accidentally, they more than likely will not land on their feet and have a tendancy to land on their back, buttocks or head.

Injuries to the back and head are the most likely to result in death. A single fall impacting the spinal cord can cause numerous problems to the bones, ligaments, nerves, and discs that make up the back and neck.

Injuries to the arm, wrist, ankle and knees are also common in accidental fall victims. The result is usually broken bones and muscle sprains or strains.

All of the injuries that occur from falls are debilitating and can result in long-term recovery. Some injuries may result in permanent paralysis or handicap.

Whenever possible, the best fall protection strategy is to eliminate fall hazards altogether. This can sometimes be accomplished by keeping workers at the ground level; for example, performing construction tasks prior to elevating materials, or using a tool extension to reach an off the ground task.

Still other fall hazards can be engineered out through such means as installing walkways with guardrails, or enclosing elevated work areas. However, in some instances, these approaches are not practical or possible, and the only way to protect workers is through an effective fall protection system.

Fall arrest equipment is designed to stop an individual who is falling from striking the level below. In many instances the use of fall arrest equipment is quite literally life saving.

In order to perform correctly, the equipment must be selected and worn properly.

Fall arrest components

Personal fall arrest systems have three main components: a body harness worn by the worker, the connecting devices, and one or more anchorage points. The full body harness is the only personal protective equipment that is acceptable for fall arrest; a body belt cannot be used due to the excessive impact it would exert on the abdominal area when stopping a fall and because of the potential for slipping out of the belt during an incident. In addition to being more secure, the straps that make up a full body harness reduce the impact of a fall arrest by evenly distributing the pressure over the worker’s thighs, chest, shoulders and pelvis. A D-ring in the center of the back provides the attachment point for a lanyard or other connection device.

Lanyards are the second component in a fall arrest system. A snaphook attaches the lanyard to the D-ring on the body harness. Generally, lanyards use some sort of shock-absorbing system to lessen the impact on the body when a worker’s fall is stopped. There are several types of shock-absorbing lanyards, but the approach that is most often used was originally designed for mountain climbers.

It works by folding a section of the lanyard back and forth on itself several times. The folded sections are then sewn together with special stitching. If a fall occurs the stitches tear out at a predetermined rate, absorbing some of the fall’s energy and reducing the jolt of a sudden stop.

The other end of the lanyard also has a snaphook, which is attached to the third component of the fall arrest system: the anchorage point. Whether anchorage points are permanent structures or installed temporarily, they must provide secure points of attachment able to withstand the forces that are exerted when a fall is arrested. While structures such as beams, girders and columns may be used, it is important to remember that anchorage points cannot be chosen haphazardly. To provide a margin of safety, an approved anchorage point must be able to withstand twice the force that could be applied to it. Because of this, fall arrest systems cannot be safely attached to objects such as guardrails or hoists, which are not built to withstand these high impact forces.

Besides strength and stability, there are several other factors that determine the selection of a good anchorage point. The location of an anchor point must be easily accessible so that workers are not exposed to a fall hazard during hook up.

To limit the jolt a worker experiences when a fall is arrested, a fall arrest system must never let a worker free fall more than six feet. To prevent a longer drop, it is important that the anchor point be located at or above the worker’s shoulder level. Whenever possible, the anchorage point should also be located directly above the worker to help reduce the possibility of swinging from side to side after a fall has taken place.

It is important to remember that a fall arrest system is only as strong as its weakest link – if any part of the system fails, the user will not be protected from a fall. For this reason, all components of a fall arrest system must be thoroughly inspected for damage or excessive wear prior to each use.

Equipment care

For the equipment you use, always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for detailed information concerning specific inspection and care procedures. In general, harness and lanyard webbing should be checked from one end to the other for damage. Inspect all hardware and metal parts for cracks, pitting, sharp edges, distortion, oxidation, or too much wear. In addition, make sure that D-rings pivot easily.

Check that buckle tongues move freely and overlap the buckle frame; in addition, check that there are no loose, distorted or broken grommets, or any punched holes that were not made by the manufacturer.

Make sure that rivets are tight and do not move, and that they are flat against the material – bent rivets are likely to fail under stress.

Test that snaphooks open easily and that the ‘keeper spring’ exerts enough force to hold the snaphook firmly closed.

Above all, never trust your safety to any equipment that has damaged or deteriorated components. If you have any doubt about a piece of equipment’s ability to perform up to standard, do not use it. Tag the equipment as unusable and either destroy it or have the defective part replaced following the manufacturer’s instructions.

If a fall arrest system has been used to arrest a fall it must either be replaced or taken out of service until it is inspected by a trained, qualified person who determines the equipment is safe to reuse.

Practical use and improving mobility

When using a fall arrest system, it is best to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the exact donning procedures. The goal is to have the harness fit snugly while also allowing a full range of movement. If you will be working in an area where the lanyard or other system components could come in contact with a sharp edge, use heavy padding or other means to protect the equipment from cutting damage.

When appropriate to the work situation, some fall arrest systems are able to provide additional mobility without compromising safety. One popular alternative to using a lanyard is the self-retracting lifeline. While self-retracting lifelines can provide greater freedom, it is important to work directly below the anchorage point. Moving away from the anchorage point increases both the distance you will fall and the amount of swinging from side to side, increasing the chance that you will hit an object.

Another variation that can provide greater mobility is the rope grab. Rope grabs are mechanical devices that slide easily up and down a lifeline. They are often used when workers must move vertically, such as while climbing a ladder or when working from a movable platform.

If a worker slips, friction causes the rope grab to engage and lock onto the lifeline, arresting the fall. Because it relies on friction to work properly, it is extremely important that the rope grab is compatible with the lifeline – a rope with a diameter that is too large or too small can cause the system to fail. Horizontal lifelines are a third variation that can be used when more freedom of movement is desired. A horizontal lifeline is a cable stretched between two anchorage points. The worker attaches their lanyard to this line and is then able to move freely along its entire length. While horizontal lifelines reduce the risk of a swing fall, they place far greater stress on the anchorage points. To ensure that the anchorage points are capable of withstanding this extra load, they must be designed, installed and used under the supervision of a qualified person.

In order to prolong the life of a fall arrest system and ensure good working order, the fall arrest system should be cleaned regularly. Using a sponge or a cloth, wash all surfaces using a mild solution of water and soap; do not use solvents as these can damage synthetic material. Rinse the equipment off, use a clean cloth to wipe off the excess water, and let the system air dry. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, store the body harness in a manner that retains its shape, in an area that protects the equipment from heat, dampness, oil, chemicals or extended periods of sunlight.

Anticipating all eventualities

While most days on the job may seem routine, when the unexpected occurs it pays to be prepared.

We cannot know when or how a fall might occur, but we do have the choice to protect ourselves from injury by using the appropriate fall protection equipment. When?working off the ground, reduce your risk of injury by remembering these important elements:

• Always wear fall protection equipment if you will be working at a height of four feet or more in industry, or six feet or more in construction • Inspect your fall protection equipment for damage or defects before each use • Check that the work site’s fall clearance is sufficient for the fall protection equipment you will be using • Make sure that anchorage points are capable of withstanding at least twice the force that would be applied to them if a fall occurs • Avoid swing falls by working underneath the anchorage point • Know and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the proper wear and use of your equipment • Clean and store your fall protection equipment properly

The injuries that occur from a fall can be debilitating, and potentially fatal. Ensure your organisation and its workers are safe from the consequences of fall hazards by taking the proactive measure of ensuring proper fall protection systems are in place.


Injury Facts. (2010). National Safety Council. Falls from Elevations (2009). Center for Disease Control/NIOSH Fall Protection Training Series. Summit Training Source, Inc.

Author Details:

Sara Wesche has been with Summit Training Source for more than nine years. Her creative skill and expert writing abilities led her to the Marketing Specialist position, and ultimately to managing the marketing department in 2003. Sara’s focus has been developing Summit’s World Wide Web presence, to generate sales leads through multiple medias, and to create marketing support materials that solidify Summit’s position as the complete EH&S training solution provider. Sara graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and can be reached at or @SafetyTraining1 on Twitter.

Summit Training Source has been an environmental, health and safety training innovator for more than 29 years. In excess of 40,000 clients worldwide trust the health and safety of their employees and work sites to Summit’s expert training capabilities. With more than 600 environmental, health, and safety training titles in multiple formats, including Online, DVD, Streaming Video, Summit Elements, and Online OSHA-accepted 10 & 30 Hour, Summit provides proven content that delivers the business results expected in today’s competitive global environment.

Summit programmes create an awareness and respect of workplace hazards and reduce incidents, accidents, and their associated costs. Summit was the first training provider to offer interactive CD-ROM training, leading the way into the interactive technology age. Summit’s online platform, Summit Trainingweb®, offers customers global consistency, 24/7 availability, and is based on adult learning theories to create a more comprehensive and engaging programme. Summit’s Online OSHA 10 & 30 Hour training for Construction and General Industry has been authorised by OSHA.

Summit’s programmes are effective, offering a return on investment to customers. The organisation’s continued mission is to provide the highest quality training programmes available, meeting industry needs and complying with all regulatory guidelines, enhancing the future productivity, growth, and bottom line results for all its customers.

For free previews of any Summit programme or for access to Summit Trainingweb® online courses, call 800-842-0466 or visit

Published: 10th Jan 2011 in Health and Safety International