Chapter Corner

Using Fall Protection Helps Save Lives

Posted in: Features, May/June 2014

Twenty-five-year-old construction worker Luis Gilberto Tenezaca Palaguache was attaching new shingles on the roof of a house in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As he turned to yell to his co-worker 30 feet below, he lost his balance and fell off the roof, hitting the concrete driveway. Unfortunately, the employer had not provided fall protection to prevent Palaguache from falling. Palaguache died from his injuries, and his family is left with memories of a man whose life was just beginning. 

Fatalities from falls are the number one cause of workplace death in construction. They account for more deaths than any of the remaining top construction hazards, including struck by objects, electrocutions, and caught in between equipment. Nearly 500 residential construction workers died from falls from 2006 to 2010. In 2010 alone, falls claimed the lives of 84 residential construction workers.

The Standard for Protection

To protect residential construction workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Fall Protection in Construction standard in 1994, which required the use of conventional fall protection strategies (e.g., personal fall arrest systems, safety nets, guardrails) for anyone working above six feet. The standard exempted residential construction employers from using conventional fall protection, but only if the conventional fall protection was infeasible or would create a greater safety hazard. In these cases, employers were required to write a site-specific plan that provided for alternative methods to protect workers from falls. In 2005, OSHA issued a temporary compliance directive allowing alternative means of fall protection to be used on certain less steep roofs (full fall protection was still required on steeper roofs).

But over the next several years, even though technology advanced and fall protection became increasingly feasible, workers continued to be hurt and killed by falls from residential roofs. Industry associations asked OSHA to go back to the original 1994 standard.

In December 2010, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health said, “We cannot tolerate workers getting killed in residential construction when effective means are readily available to prevent those deaths.” OSHA announced that it was rescinding the temporary directive and would implement the standard as originally intended: workers must be safeguarded from falls of six feet or more by fall protection. These protections can be guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall arrest systems, such as full body harnesses, lanyards, and anchor points. OSHA also maintained the flexibility in the standard, allowing alternate means of fall protection if the conventional fall protection was infeasible or would create a greater safety hazard.

Fall Protection Saves Lives

Fall protection is not about killing jobs, it’s about keeping jobs from killing workers. Carl Beck Jr. was a construction worker in Pennsylvania who was killed when he fell more than 40 feet from a roof. His employer failed to provide the required fall protection, even after a number of workers spoke up and said the job was dangerous. This 29-year-old, with his whole life ahead of him, left behind a fiancée and a three-year-old son. Three months after Beck’s death, his fiancée gave birth to another son – who will never know his father.

This was another case of a worker’s death that should never have happened. OSHA fined the employer more than half a million dollars for knowingly and willfully failing to protect his workers. The Department of Justice prosecuted him, and he later pled guilty to intentionally violating OSHA regulations.

These enforcement actions won’t return Beck to his family, but they do send a powerful reminder to other employers that they are legally responsible for protecting their workers – by providing training and protective equipment and by following the rules to eliminate fall hazards on the job.

Protection for Employers

Employers who implement fall protection are not only protecting their workers from harm, but they can also prevent injury to themselves. OSHA cited German Terrazas, the owner of a small residential construction company, for not providing his workers with fall protection. As part of his settlement agreement, Terrazas purchased fall protection equipment and attended an OSHA safety class. Two months later, Terrazas fell while working on a residential roof – but he didn’t fall to his death. The fall protection equipment that he purchased and used after receiving the OSHA citation very likely saved his life. This is why OSHA made fall protection mandatory – to stop workers from dying needlessly. Employers who comply with the requirement are helping to ensure that their workers, and they themselves, return home to their families safe – every day.

OSHA’s Residential Fall Protection webpage offers useful information that explains residential fall protection. One of the documents included on the Web page is OSHA’s Guidance Document on Fall Protection in Residential Construction, designed to help employers preventfall-related injuries and deaths among residential construction workers.

The OSHA webpage also offers a series of short, helpful videos that show how workers can be injured or killed on the job. Each two- to four-minute video presents a worksite incident based on stories that resulted in worker injury or death and what actions can be taken to prevent similar incidents from reoccurring.

Another useful OSHA compliance assistance tool is the Fall Protection in Residential Construction PowerPoint presentation. This English- and Spanish- language slide presentation includes information with photographs illustrating different fall protection systems.

While some employers may not understand the regulations, other employers mistakenly believe that providing necessary equipment will cost too much. Other employers dismiss their obligation with the excuse that wearing protection would get in the way and reduce worker productivity.

But the human cost of preventable workplace injuries and deaths is incalculable. The average workers compensation cost of one fall from a roofer in construction is over $100,000. Employers who ensure their workers’ safety and incorporate good safety and health management are more likely to prevent worker injuries, save on costs, and enhance their business’ reputation.

OSHA Resources

OSHA’s commitment to ensuring that employers and workers get the information they need for safe and healthful workplaces is evident in its compliance assistance services, which include outreach, consultation, training, grant programs, and cooperative programs. With the abundance of free information about how to address workplace safety or health problems and how to implement OSHA standards, no employer should fail to provide a safe workplace.

Forty years ago, most workers in America did not enjoy the basic human right to work in a safe workplace. Instead, they were told to either work under dangerous conditions and risk their lives, or move on. Then, in 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act laid the foundation for improving worker safety and health.

This is why OSHA exists – to make sure all workers are protected from danger and harm. After all, no worker should lose his or her life for a paycheck.

For more resources, visit www.osha.gov. To help small businesses with compliance, OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program provides a free, confidential service for small businesses with fewer than 250 employees at a worksite (and no more than 500 employees nationwide). Consultation services are separate from enforcement and do not result in penalties or citations. To find out more about free onsite compliance assistance, call OSHA’s toll- free number at (800) 321-OSHA (6742).

Kimberly Darby is a writer-editor in OSHA’s Office of Communications. She can be reached at (202) 693-1999.