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Protecting Workers During All Aspects of a Fall

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

Responsible contractors make fall prevention a focal point of their safety programs, and for good reason. In 2014, falls accounted for 349 fatalities – nearly 40 percent of all deaths in construction. Year after year, falls continue to be the top cause of on-the-job injuries and fatalities, no matter the industry.

“LIUNA members are at risk for falls on every project, whether it’s new construction or much-needed maintenance work on bridges and other critical pieces of infrastructure,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Preventing falls goes beyond simply putting up guardrails or providing safety harnesses – it requires a commitment to protect workers before, during and after a fall happens.”

Before the Fall

Effective fall protection begins before workers put on a harness or clip in a lifeline. Planning ahead to prevent falls means creating a fall prevention program, regularly inspecting the worksite for fall hazards and eliminating those hazards as much as possible. This program should:

  • Determine what kinds of equipment will be used to prevent falls. Depending on the site, this could include guardrails, personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) or safety nets.
  • Include plans to training workers how to use fall protection equipment properly before work begins.
  • Call for all workers to be trained to recognize fall hazards, inspect fall protection equipment regularly and always wear it when required.

During a Fall

Even when equipment such as a PFAS stops a worker from falling to the surface below, workers are still at risk. A 200 lb. person whose fall is arrested after 10 feet is still subjected to thousands of pounds of force during an abrupt impact, which could cause serious injury or even death. OSHA requires workers fall no more than six feet and feel no more than 1,800 lbs. of force.

Follow these steps to keep workers safe in the unfortunate event a fall occurs:

  • Ensure lanyards and self-retracting lifelines are the proper length and strength to decelerate a worker’s fall safely. Always use the shortest possible lanyard for the job and do not mix equipment – make sure all pieces are designed to go together within the manufacturer’s specifications.
  • Have a competent person check that a worker won’t swing into a structure below (e.g., a wall or bridge support) after their fall has been arrested.
  • Check that anchor points for PFAS are capable of supporting up to 5,000 lbs. of force for each worker attached to them.


Hazards remain even after a fall has been successfully arrested. Workers left hanging in the air are at risk for suspension trauma. Hanging with your feet off the ground causes blood to pool in the legs (known as venous pooling), which reduces the flow of oxygen to the heart and brain. Pressure from the leg straps of safety harnesses can compound this effect by compressing veins in the leg, further cutting off blood flow to the heart.

Suspension trauma can lead to unconsciousness and death in less than 30 minutes. Industrial hygienist Bill Weems describes how quickly suspension trauma can turn deadly:

“I was surprisingly comfortable with my legs dangling relaxed beneath me, and my arms outstretched … I felt I could stay in this position for a long time. Three minutes later, maybe less, I wondered why I suddenly felt so hot. The next thing I knew, they were reviving me from unconsciousness.”

Workers suspended in the air are in an emergency situation and must be rescued immediately. While awaiting rescue, workers can slow the onset of suspension trauma by using the relief straps built into many harnesses to make a loop they can stand in.


Time is of the essence in any rescue attempt. Whether professional emergency services are called or qualified personnel on site perform the rescue, these procedures can help save the life of a suspended victim:

  • If possible, workers should use a ladder or aerial lift to provide a platform for the victim to stand on while they wait for rescue.
  • The victim should be monitored at all times. Nausea, dizziness and other symptoms appear prior to the victim becoming unconscious from suspension trauma.
  • Do NOT allow rescued workers to lie horizontal immediately after rescue. This can send a deadly rush of oxygen-deprived blood to the heart. Instead, have the victim sit on the ground with their knees close to the chest.

Remember: in emergency situations, seconds count. Having a rescue plan already in place so workers know how to respond is just as important as having a fall protection plan.

The LHSFNA’s Fall Protection in Construction Health Alert and No Excuses poster can help raise awareness about the importance of fall protection on your site. These and other publications can be ordered from the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue. To find out more about how the LHSFNA can help prevent falls at your site, call the Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

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