Fall Prevention vs Fall Protection: What are the OSHA Standards?

fall prevention

Falls are the leading cause of work-related death in the construction industry. In 2020, falls to a lower level caused more than a third of occupational fatalities in the industry.

Even if you avoid the worst-case scenario, there's another reason that fall prevention is important: money. Two of the top 10 most-cited OSHA violations are for fall-related standards. Employers frequently get cited for failing to adhere to fall protection standards, but also for failing to train workers properly on the subject.

The first step to avoiding a citation is to understand fall prevention standards yourself, including all of the easily-confused terminology.

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Fall Prevention vs Fall Protection

Fall protection and fall prevention are both common terms, and they often get used interchangeably. But there is a difference between them.

What is Fall Prevention?

Fall prevention is any system or process you use to keep an accidental fall from being a risk. This makes sense since prevention means that you're trying to avoid something altogether.

Examples of fall prevention include training employees to spot a fall risk, creating a barrier to prevent a fall, or using a lanyard to stop someone from accidentally reaching an unprotected edge as they work. The last two are known as fall restraint systems.

In falls, like everything else, prevention should always be your first choice. Once someone falls, there's a risk of injury (and property damage) even if you have fall protection in place.

What is Fall Protection?

Fall protection is equipment that you use to minimize an injury in the event of an accidental fall. Fall protection can be anything from an aerial lift to a fall arrest system.

One of the reasons that people use fall prevention and fall protection interchangeably is that OSHA's fall protection standards do it. They define fall protection as "any equipment, device, or system that prevents a worker from falling from an elevation or mitigates the effects of such a fall."

Fall Arrest vs Restraint

While fall prevention and fall protection get confused in general discussions on workplace safety, the confusion between fall prevention systems, fall arrest systems, and fall restraint systems come up more when you're talking about safety products.

However, the differences between these terms are tied to the difference between prevention (stopping a fall before it occurs) and protection (minimizing injuries during a fall).

What is a Fall Prevention System?

A fall prevention system is any equipment that passively protects workers from an unprotected edge. Fall prevention systems are also called passive restraint systems (or "methods," since they're simpler equipment).

"Passive" is on the part of individual workers – while an employer has to actively install the equipment, workers don't need to take extra steps to benefit (though you can choose to pair passive restraint with an active system).

Examples of fall prevention systems include guardrails, warning lines, self-closing gates, and ladder cages.

What is a Fall Restraint System?

A fall restraint system is built to prevent a fall from occurring, but workers have to actively engage with the system by tying themselves to an anchor and using a lanyard short enough to prevent them from falling off an edge.

What is a Fall Arrest System?

While active and passive restraint systems could be categorized as fall prevention, a fall arrest system is fall protection. It's a system that minimizes the chance and severity of injury once a worker does fall.

In terms of equipment, fall restraint and fall arrest systems typically have a lot in common. Since workers have to tie into the system, they're considered active fall protection systems. And they're "systems" because they require multiple components – at least one anchor, a connector (lanyard), and body support (like a harness), at minimum.

The difference is that a fall restraint system has a short connector with an adjustable length, while a fall arrest system's connector is typically longer. It also must be able to absorb the force of the worker's weight combined with the speed of the fall. Additionally, a fall arrest system needs an extra component for self-rescue or assisted rescue, so that they can descend safely.

When Is Fall Protection Required by OSHA?

The rules are a little different depending on whether you're Construction, Maritime, or General Industry (everyone else), though a rule update several years ago made the Construction and General Industry fall protection standards much more consistent.

Fall protection is required at a height of 4 feet for General Industry, 5 feet for Maritime, and 6 feet for Construction. Construction standards have a number of confusing exceptions like that fall protection isn't required until:

  • 10 feet above the lower level on scaffolding
  • 15 feet for anyone involved in steel erection activities
  • 24 feet on a fixed ladder or rebar assembly

In any case, you can institute fall protection at a lower height, but once workers are above the minimum, OSHA can start issuing expensive fines.

Remember, in OSHA's standards, fall protection includes fall prevention, so this means that anyone working six feet or more above a lower level on a construction site needs either a fall prevention system or a fall protection system.

Learn More About OSHA's Fall Protection Standards

If you're subject to OSHA's fall protection standards, there's a lot more that you and your workers will need to learn to remain compliant – especially since training is explicitly required.

As an OSHA-authorized training provider, we can help you train your team effectively and efficiently with mobile-friendly online courses.  Check out our supervisor-level course on Fall Arrest Systems to get started.

New York City Department of Buildings has its own safety requirements, so you need a Site Safety Training (NYC SST) course instead. In most cases, you should take 8-hour Fall Prevention, but if you're a non-supervisor in need of a refresher, you should take 4-hour Fall Prevention instead. Check out our SST packages and enroll today!