A Brief History of Fall Protection

I think we’ve all seen the images from the 1920s and 1930s in which iron workers pose along I-beams high above the cityscape. Prior to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) of 1970, fall protection in the workplace was unregulated, and employers bore little responsibility for fall hazards. Cautions amounted to verbal warnings or posted signs. Body belts were rare, and often went unused. Each worker, it is believed, was responsible for his or her own safety. Workers believed safety devices to be too restrictive and cumbersome to be of value.

With the advent of OSHA, and with the increasing costs of litigation related to deaths and injuries from falls, attitudes about workplace safety began to change. Fall protection became a larger priority. Industries such as construction, manufacturing, mining, and transportation began to see the value in providing both passive (ladders and enclosed walkways) and active (rope and body belt systems) fall protection for workers. The risk of OSHA spot inspections and heavy fines for noncompliance with regulations added a new incentive for employers to address potential fall hazards in the workplace.

On the technological side, most active fall protection systems can be traced to mountaineering, where the need for fall protection is obvious. Mountaineers and rock-climbers have long used complex fall protection systems that include some of the same elements seen in industrial fall protection, including anchorage devices, ropes and lanyards, and body harnesses.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the use of safety body belts became the norm for workers who were required to perform tasks at height. The construction industry added the protection of the “100% tie-off,” which required that a worker’s body belt be secured by two lanyards. This ensured that at least one lanyard would remain attached, even at transition points between work areas. Workers, however, found the tying and untying of lines to be time-consuming.

By the 1990s, the full-body harness began to exert its presence in the workplace. For the first time, workers at height were protected not only from fall-related impacts, but from the spinal and internal organ injuries that could result from even short periods of suspension from a body belt. The dorsal D-ring system provided more effective weight distribution. Advances in the materials used in the construction of harnesses made them more comfortable, able to hold heavier workers, and more resistant to wear and tear from weather and exposure to corrosives and abrasives. Development of the self-retracting lanyard helped reduce fall distance, improve deceleration, reduce sudden stops, and ease of rescue. Improved worker training and safety awareness, including development of effective fall rescue plans, has helped to reduce the number of fall-related injuries and fatalities in the workplace.

A 2011 change to OSHA’s 1999 fall protection standards has expanded their regulatory scope to require fall protection for residential home construction. According to the new regulations, personal fall arrest systems must (a) not allow a worker to fall more than 6 feet or to contact a lower level; (b) bring a worker to a complete stop and limit maximum deceleration distance to 3.5 feet; and (c) have the strength needed to withstand twice the impact energy of a worker free-falling a distance of 6 feet (or the fall distance permitted by the system, whichever is less).

Fall protection continues to evolve, and manufacturers and safety professionals are seeking new and innovative ways to identify hazards and protect workers. Consult your manufacturer to help you choose the fall protection system that best meets the needs of your business, your facility, and your workers.

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