Fall protection systems | Pro Construction Guide

Fall protection systems for residential construction

fall protection systems

Full body harnesses must be rigged to limit falls to no more than 6 feet with a maximum arresting force on the employee of 1,800 pounds.

For many years, there have been two sets of rules related to fall protection on the jobsite.

Residential contractors had to comply with one set of fall protection policies that were less stringent than those followed by commercial contractors.

The Occupational and Health Safety Administration (OSHA) recently issued a directive that requires residential contractors to provide the same fall protection systems for their workers that commercial contractors use.

OSHA defines “residential construction” as the building of structures in which the working environment and the construction materials, methods and procedures employed are essentially the same as those used for a typical single-family house or townhouse.

Under the new regulation, workers engaged in residential construction 6 feet or more above a lower level, must be protected by conventional fall protection systems, i.e., a suitable guardrail system, safety net system, personal fall arrest system or other fall protection measures allowed in the regulation.

The three most common fall protection systems are guardrails, safety nets and personal fall arrest systems. Following is a brief outline of the key aspects of each; however, contractors should become familiar with all the related criteria and requirements as mandated by OSHA.

As of last year, fall protection violations were the second most cited category and scaffolding violations were number one. Penalties for non-compliance can be severe. OSHA violations fall into four basic types: willful, serious, imminent danger and repeat. A first-time violation typically results in a $5,000 fine per event. So if an OSHA inspector finds three separate violations on your jobsite it can assess up to $15,000 in fines. Repeat violations can be significantly more costly.

Guardrail fall protection

Whether your guardrail is “stick-built” in the field or uses prefabricated components, it must comply with the basic OSHA requirements for size and strength. The top rail is normally required to be 42 inches above the working surface, with an allowable variance of 3 inches.

Below the top rail, a midrail must be provided that is 21 inches above the working surface. If you have an existing parapet that is 21 inches or taller, the midrail is not required. Vertical members shall be spaced not more than 8 feet apart, and the last component is typically a toe board to keep tools or other materials from being kicked over the edge.

Guardrail systems must be capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds applied within 2 inches of the top edge in any outward or downward direction at any point along the top edge.

If mesh, screens or solid panels are used, they must cover the entire height of the guardrail. Midrails, vertical members, or any mesh or screen components must resist a force of 150 pounds in any outward or downward direction at any point along the guardrail system.

If a worker is using stilts for the job, the minimum height of the guardrail system must be increased to include the height of the stilts.

Safety nets

Safety net systems should be installed as close as practical under the working surface up to a maximum distance of 30 feet. The chart below defines how far the edge of the net must extend beyond the outer edge of the working surface.

Safety nets must be able to pass a “drop-test” that consists of dropping a 400-pound bag of sand that is 30 inches in diameter (+/- 2 inches) from the highest working surface above the net. Sufficient space must be allowed below the net to ensure the 400-pound bag doesn’t come into contact with any objects below. The maximum opening size in the net is limited to 36 square inches, and it cannot be longer than 6 inches on any side.

Personal fall arrest systems

Prior to January 1, 1998, a body belt was an acceptable part of a personal fall arrest system; however OSHA’s new fall protection systems guidelines require use of full-body harnesses for personal fall protection.

Full body harnesses must be rigged to limit falls to no more than 6 feet with a maximum arresting force on the employee of 1,800 pounds. The connection point to the body is typically the center of the wearer’s back, near shoulder level.

Proper utilization of body harnesses, and the related lifelines, lanyards, snaps, hooks, and anchorage requirements are well defined in the regulation and are stringent. Many of the requirements vary depending on the type of work being done, and the nature of the fall hazard. Contact your local OSHA representative to arrange hands-on training or jobsite visits and for more information, visit osha.gov/SLTC/fallprotection/construction.html.

— By Bruce Webb, general contractor


Safety net systems

Vertical distance from working level to horizontal plane of net Minimum required horizontal distance of outer edge of net from the edge of the working surface
Up to 5 feet 8 feet
More than 5 feet, up to 10 feet 10 feet
More than 10 feet 13 feet

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