Fall prevention Construction

5 reasons why falls in construction keep happening

(and what to do about it)

Construction falls

Photo: kali9/Gettyimages

It’s not a surprise: Falls continue to be the leading cause of death in the construction industry.

A recent report from CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training shows the number of fatal falls in the industry rose more than 50% during a recent 12-year period.

“It’s definitely a difficult issue and it’s hard to change, quite frankly,” said G. Scott Earnest, associate director of the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health. “We’re just trying to communicate with the industry at large on the steps they should take to prevent falls in the future.”

Here are five factors that contribute to construction worker falls.


Not making time for safety

A CPWR analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that 397 fatal falls to a lower level occurred in the construction industry in 2022. That’s a 52.7% increase from 2011.

Especially vulnerable: workers employed by smaller construction companies. CPWR says 70% of the fatal falls occurred within organizations with 10 or fewer employees.


“I think some of it relates to the fact that they’re so busy just trying to get the next job,” Earnest said. “Some of these small businesses are not putting the resources and the time into safety because they’re so busy just trying to go from one job to the next and bring money into the organization.

“And for that matter, that could be the case with the workers, too, where they’re just trying to put food on the table for their family, so they’re not really taking time to really consider their own safety.”

The 11th annual National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction – an initiative created by NIOSH, OSHA and CPWR – is slated for May 6-10 (see box). A poster created for the event encourages employers to:

  • Train all workers.
  • Plan a toolbox talk or other safety activity.
  • Take a break to talk about how to prevent falls.

Not wearing PPE

A 2022 CPWR survey of 495 people who either were involved in, witnessed or investigated a fall incident showed that workers who believed fall protection was required by their employer were eight times

more likely to use it than those who thought it was optional.

“What we hear a lot from contractors is: ‘Well, we provide the fall protection and then I come to the jobsite and it’s still on the truck. The workers aren’t using it. They have a brand-new harness and it’s on the ground while they’re on the roof,’” said Jessica Bunting, director of the Research to Practice initiative at CPWR. “While this may be true on the surface, our survey findings showed that if you enforce that employees need to wear the fall protection, then they’ll do it. Just giving it to them isn’t enough.

“They have to be trained on its use. They have to know that it’s required by their employer, and there’s that expectation from their leadership.”

Doug Trout, deputy director of the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health, says employers should examine the safety climate at their jobsites. Do workers’ perceptions of what the company says or writes about safety and health align with what’s practiced?

“That’s something employers can be working on regularly to decrease falls and improve all safety and health issues on the job,” Trout said.


Not focusing on leading edges

OSHA requires workers constructing leading edges at least 6 feet above a lower level to be protected by a guardrail, safety net or personal fall arrest system.

Experts find, however, that because the opportunity for overhead anchorage doesn’t exist, workers may tie off at foot level. This can lead to problems. Although ANSI Class II self-retracting lifelines designed for leading-edge use are tested to withstand greater fall forces, those not approved for abrasive-edge use may eventually fray – and snap.

“It’s still a complicated topic because there really isn’t a great one-size-fits-all solution out there,” Bunting said. “It is an area, I think, that needs some more research and that maybe could benefit from some new advancements from manufacturers. It’s a challenging issue to address.”

The recent death of a worker whose lanyard was severed by an exposed edge as he fell prompted OSHA to issue a hazard alert. Recommendations include:

  • Identify and document all potentially hazardous edges during the safety evaluation and walkarounds at the jobsite.
  • When possible, avoid working in areas where lifelines could contact potentially hazardous edges if a fall occurred.
  • Identify possible solutions to prevent establishing anchors at foot level.
  • Protect lifelines and lanyards against being severed or damaged by covering exposed edges with protective material in areas where workers could fall.

Fall prevention is a ‘yearlong effort’

Worker on lift

The National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction is an annual opportunity for employers, safety professionals and workers to take part in activities that raise awareness of fall hazards and the importance of fall protection.

Still, members of the agencies and organization that developed the event say the initiative’s message should extend beyond a single week.

“This is a yearlong effort,” said Doug Trout, deputy director of the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health. “Even though we do focus on the stand-down and the related events, we really want people to understand that this is something that needs to be emphasized all year round.”

The 2024 stand-down will take place May 6-10.


Not having sufficient or effective pre-work task planning

According to CPWR’s survey, when an employer or competent person didn’t complete a pre-work task plan, the odds of workers using fall protection were a whopping 71% lower.

“Planning goes a long way,” said Jose Herrera, safety and occupational health specialist in OSHA’s Office of Construction Services. “It’s a good way to improve and gain leadership capital with a team. It’s just another way to be proactive in examining a worksite to identify potential hazards and obstacles.

“Sometimes, these obstacles may require some preparatory actions. Of course, as you’re working, priorities shift and planning for contingencies would avoid some fixation on a single issue. And planning allows a team to adapt and reprioritize efforts and resources while on the worksite. If things go south, it’s something to go back to. If it doesn’t work, you go back and reassess, reevaluate and you change the plan accordingly.”

Resources are available at StopConstructionFalls.com. The official website of the National Campaign to Prevent Falls in Construction (which hosts the annual stand-down), it features a starter fall prevention plan, a daily jobsite checklist, and a detailed fall protection and rescue plan. All are available in English and Spanish.

Are you forming or revising your organization’s plan?

“Try to avoid unnecessary complexity,” Herrera said. “Try to keep instructions simple and procedures as simple as possible.”


Not engineering out hazards

As fatal falls continue to increase, the use of Prevention through Design principles to prevent these incidents is taking on added emphasis, Earnest said.

Earnest and Herrera were among the speakers during a March 2023 CPWR webinar on preventing falls through improved design.

PtD aims to protect workers by mitigating risks and hazards during the design phase of the work process. The strategy incorporates prevention measures based on the Hierarchy of Controls.

“Focusing on the top of the hierarchy where you have elimination and substitution is a more effective approach to preventing fatalities and injuries,” Earnest added.

Examples of engineering out hazards include:

  • Installing embedded safety features, such as anchor points and parapet walls, to prevent falls.
  • Using prefabricated staircases rather than fixed ladders.
  • Installing skylights with shatterproof glass or permanent guarding.

“That’s the direction we are going in,” Bunting said. “Just talking about the different levels of Prevention through Design and how anyone from a small residential contractor to a large, well-resourced company might be able to implement different types of measures that really reduce the risk of falls to start with.”

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