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July 16, 2014
NIOSH: Prevent falls through building design

Image credit: OSHA

Falls are consistently the top cause of fatalities in the construction industry, accounting for 269 of the 775 construction fatalities in 2012, and fall prevention in construction is consistently OSHA’s most frequently cited safety violation. A publication from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) addresses this issue and seeks to help prevent falls from heights by incorporating safety features into building and worksite design.

The new publication, titled “Preventing Falls from Heights through the Design of Embedded Safety Features,” urges building designers, construction employers, and safety professionals to consider the need to protect construction workers, future facility occupants, and repair and maintenance workers from fall hazards from the earliest stages of building design. Permanent fall protection features can be integrated into buildings, thus reducing or eliminating the need for less effective temporary measures.

According to NIOSH, the recommended hierarchy of controls for fall protection is as follows:

  • Eliminate or modify the fall hazard. This can be done by either adopting a building design involving a single level at grade rather than multiple levels at elevations or by using parapet walls, permanent guardrails, and other features to separate workers from fall hazards.
  • Provide a fall restraint system. This involves securing the worker via an anchor point, connector, lanyard, and body harness to prevent the worker from reaching the fall hazard.
  • Install a fall arrest system. This involves using an anchor point, connectors, lanyards, and body harnesses, but allows exposure to the fall hazard and is designed to stop a fall after it has begun.

Among NIOSH’s recommendations for integrating fall prevention elements into building design:

  • During retrofits, renovations, or new construction, perform a safety design review to identify and consider tasks that could involve fall hazards over the life cycle of the facility.
  • Install permanent fall protection features. Depending on when these features are installed during the construction process, they may be used to provide fall protection to workers during the construction phase.
  • Many commercial and professional buildings can embed permanent equipment into steel or concrete parts of a building that can be used to set up fall protection systems. These features can be used to prevent falls during construction, as well as during building maintenance after construction. Examples include concrete straps, anchor points, and guardrail support.
  • Have any existing concrete-embedded fall arrest systems tested by a qualified testing entity to ensure that they are capable of withstanding intended loads.
  • Ensure that a competent person inspects and evaluates fall arrest systems regularly for damage.

The NIOSH publication states that although architects and building engineers do not always consider fall hazards during the design phase of a construction project, embedded fall safety features have been shown to save money. Fall protection can be set up more efficiently using permanently installed features rather than the added costs associated with installing temporary fall protection each time there is a roof-related maintenance or renovation task.

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