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Preventing Falls Through the Hierarchy of Controls

Year after year, falls kill more construction workers on the job than any other hazard. About one construction worker dies from a fall each day at work. In the latest available data from 2018, about a quarter of these deaths (83 to be precise) were construction laborers. Most fall fatalities occur from roofs, ladders and scaffolds. Prevention of falls should, just like all occupational hazards, focus on the “hierarchy of controls.”

The hierarchy of controls gives employers a clear path to reducing serious injuries and illnesses on construction jobsites,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Following this safety framework can help employers prevent falls, which continue to be one of the biggest hazards across the construction industry.”

The hierarchy of controls works by starting with the most effective strategies and, when those are not feasible, moving down the ladder to less effective strategies.

  • Elimination: Both studies and common sense tell us that the most effective way to prevent an injury is to remove the hazard in the first place. That is difficult to do when working from heights, since the height itself is the hazard. One option that can eliminate some time spent at heights is to do as much work as possible at ground level. For example, it is more productive and safer for workers to tie rebar cages at ground level and use a crane to lift them into place. Prefabrication and modular construction measures reduce the number of workers put at risk by working at heights.
  • Substitution: The second option is substitution, which seeks to replace the hazard with a safer option. Ladders, a leading cause of fall injuries, can often be substituted with lifts. Another way to effectively substitute ladders for other options is to have construction plans specify that stairs be installed early on in a project, so workers don’t have to climb ladders to access upper floors. Some owners have even gone as far as declaring jobs to be entirely ladder-free.

  • Engineering controls: The third option is engineering controls, which involves using equipment or technology to reduce the risk. For fall prevention, this could mean installing guardrails to protect workers along roof edges. Hoists can reduce the risk associated with carrying materials up ladders. Ladder accessories to stabilize the ladder can also reduce risk.
  • Workplace practices: This option includes changes to the way work is done to reduce exposure, such as rotating jobs to reduce the time any one worker is exposed. Adequate breaks guard against fatigue and allow workers to maintain situational awareness, which is important at all times, but especially when working at heights. Creating buddy systems, having a worker at the base of the ladder to hold it steady and empowering workers to ensure their fellow workers are working safely are all examples of workplace practices that can help reduce falls.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): The least effective control is relying on personal protective equipment, such as a harness and lifeline, because each piece of equipment only protects one worker, unlike most measures farther up the hierarchy of controls. There are more ways for things to go wrong with PPE. The equipment may not be readily available (e.g., it got left in the truck). The harness may not be the right size or may not be worn properly because the worker was never trained to use it. The harness may not be tied off correctly, the lifeline could get tangled or be a tripping hazard or the line may not arrest your fall in time. For all of these reasons, PPE is the last resort and the last means of defense against falls to a lower level.

Annual Falls Stand-Down Rescheduled for September

OSHA’s National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction usually takes place in March, but was rescheduled this year due to COVID-19. This year’s Stand-Down will now take place September 14-18. For tips and resources to help you participate in the campaign, check out

With over 300 construction workers killed every year by falls, clearly there’s plenty of room for improvement. Following the hierarchy of controls could help contractors take a more proactive approach to preventing falls and make a big difference on jobsites. LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can order several different fall prevention toolbox talks through the LHSFNA, including Fall Prevention: Guardrail SystemsPersonal Fall Arrest Systems and Slips, Trips and Falls. These and other publications are available through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue.

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