Using Fall Protection Helps Save Lives

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