10 Safety Tips for Working at Heights

Whether you work at heights every day or just once in a while, your focus on safety during those times is of utmost importance. It takes one mistake to turn a routine work task into a fatality.  Falls are debilitating.  Falls are deadly. You must be prepared to protect your employees each and every time they could be exposed. Here are ten tips to consider if your employees work at heights.

Safety Tips for Working at Heights

Working at heights can be dangerous, and it is essential to follow safety protocols for your own safety, as well as the safety of those around you. To help keep everyone safe when working at heights, we’ve put together a list of 10 tips for staying safe while on the job. Whether you’re using ladders or scaffolding equipment to perform work from up high, these guidelines will help ensure that the job gets done effectively while keeping everyone out of harm’s way. Read on to find out our top 10 tips on how to stay safe working at heights!

1. Use Rails

When you can, use rails.  Passive protection is the easiest way to keep your workers safe and achieve compliance because there is nothing that they need to actually do to keep themselves safe (other than stay within the rails…and if your employees are climbing outside of protective rails, you’ve got more significant problems to address!).

Rails can be built by job site carpenters (as long as they meet the requirements set forth by OSHA) or pre-fabricated by a manufacturer and installed.  Pre-fabricated railings can be permanently affixed or portable to suit your needs.  Regardless of which type you use, once in place, you’ll find rails are the most accessible fall protection system.

2. Select the Proper PPE

If you use Personal Fall Arrest Systems (PFAS), you must ensure you choose the proper equipment.  All full-body harnesses that meet ANSI standards will perform the same, despite the cost. However, that price differential is getting you something.  Sure, sometimes it’s just a name, but other times its functionality you’re getting or sacrificing, such as extra D-rings, fireproof material, or arc-safe design.

Sometimes, a more expensive harness is more expensive simply because it’s been made to be more comfortable.  Do your research and decide what it is you need.  If you have workers welding at heights, then a standard nylon harness will probably not be what you need.  Perhaps Kevlar is the way to go.  And don’t forget your workforce.  Perhaps comfort isn’t your primary concern (though it’s certainly much easier to get cooperation from your workers if they are comfortable wearing the equipment), but that’s not the only consideration you need to make.  Harnesses are not one-size-fits-all.  Ensure your workers can adequately adjust their harnesses to fit correctly.

Lanyards need to be appropriately selected as well.  Depending on the height at which you are working, a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device will not protect your worker.  Instead, a retractable lanyard may be necessary.  Each situation is different, so you need to evaluate your working conditions and the task to give your employees something that will protect them.

3. Inspect Your PPE

Employees can use all the equipment they want; if they’re not inspecting it, it could fail at any time.  When it comes to harnesses and lanyards, while they need to be periodically inspected by a Competent Person (one with the knowledge to recognize the hazard AND the authority to correct it), they should also be inspected by the user before every use.

For this to happen, your users need to understand what they’re looking for, what is acceptable and what is not, and what to do when they find a problem.  The inspection should be thorough but does not need to take a lot of time.  Even so, this brief pre-work check could save a life.

4. Ensure You Understand Fall Distance

4. Ensure You Understand Fall Distance

You can wear all the fall protection equipment in the world, but if it allows you to hit the lower level before it engages, it’s pointless.  This may sound like a “common sense” statement, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to have “common sense.”  It is not unusual to go onto a construction site or observe a maintenance crew in a plant and see a worker 10-12’ off the ground wearing a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device.  While you might think it should work at first glance, there are several reasons why it won’t.

First, you have to add 3.5’ of distance to account for the deployment of your deceleration device.  Already that means the lanyard itself is 9.5’ long.  This is some bad news unless you are a 6” tall person.  Your actual fall distance needs to include the length of your lanyard when deployed, your body length below the D-ring, and any sag in your harness and anchor system.  Count on a good 18.5’ minimum before using a 6’ lanyard with a deceleration device.

5. Ensure the Selection of an Acceptable Anchor Point

As Grandpa said in The Lost Boys, “We’ve got rules!”  Sure, he was referring to drinking his root beer and not peeling the label back on the TV Guide, but he might as well have been talking about anchor points.  If you were to pick a construction site randomly and see what they’re using as anchor points, you might assume there were no rules.  PVC pipe?  Not an anchor.  Decorative steel?  Not an anchor.

In fact, many more things will NOT be an acceptable anchor point than WILL be an acceptable anchor point.  Why?  Because the anchor point must support not just the weight of the person attached but 5000 lbs. per person attached (or a factor of 2 if you have an engineer determine your anchor).

Many fixtures are not going to withstand those forces.  Structural steel using a proper beam clamp?  Sure.  A manufactured roofing cart or other manufactured anchors?  Sure, if installed properly.  Short of that, you’ll need documentation and/or an engineer’s approval to use something as an anchor point.

6. Ensure You Select the Best Means of Working at Heights (Scaffold vs Lift vs Ladder)

Just as harnesses are not one-size-fits-all, neither are fall protection solutions.  In some situations, a scaffold will be your best solution to work at heights.  If so, you’ll probably be able to equip them with rails, making your fall protection much easier to address.  Other times, scaffolds will be infeasible, and you’ll find yourself on a lift.

Depending on the lift type, you may or may not need to wear a harness and a lanyard (and properly tie them off).  Still, other times, you’ll need to use a ladder, at which point the requirements for fall protection become trickier.  In the end, thinking that a ladder will suffice no matter what situation you’re in (a lift, a scaffold, or any other means of elevation) is only asking for problems.  Evaluate your situation carefully and determine the right piece of equipment for that task in that location.

7. Use Ladders Properly

Don’t assume that you know what you’re doing just because you have a ladder at home.   In fact, the safest way to live on this planet is to always assume you don’t know what you’re doing.  In most cases, you’re going to be right!  Ladders are the source of many industrial and workplace accidents simply because we take their use for granted.  Ladders are familiar.

You use them to hang your Christmas lights, paint the living room, change that annoying hard-to-reach high-hat bulb, and clean your gutters.  We use them so often that we must know what we’re doing because we’ve never been hurt! Except for that one time you closed the A-frame on your hand.  Or that time the ladder slipped out from under you.  Or you had a tool on top of that ladder that fell on you.  Or that time….well, never mind.

Ladders are dangerous.  When improperly used, they’re REALLY dangerous.  First, ensure that ladders are the best way to do what you’re doing, then ensure your employees know how to properly use them.  3’ extension, 4:1 ratio, 3 points of contact, and secure.

If you don’t know what that refers to, you may not know how to use an extension ladder properly.  You know that sticker on a step ladder that says, “Don’t stand on this step or above.”?  If you think that means you can stop there but no higher, you might not know how to use a step-ladder.  Provide proper training to your employees so they use the tools they are being given the right way.

8. Know Your Roofing Regulations

Roofing regulations are some of the most misunderstood requirements.  Not only do roofers not know exactly what is required of them much of the time, but many other contractors working on roofs that are not roofers believe that certain methods of fall protection are available to them when, in reality, they’re not.  Warning lines at 6’ with a monitor are only allowed for roofers performing roofing work (and 10’ back from the edge if mechanical equipment is traveling in that direction).

Notice the phrase “with a monitor” in the previous statement.  There is NO situation in which a warning line is an acceptable means of fall protection that does not also include a dedicated monitor being present.  There are a few that allow for a monitor with no warning line (low-slope roofs less than 50’ in width, for instance), but none that allow a warning line with no monitor.  Also, notice the phrase “dedicated monitor” in that previous statement.

Monitors must have no duties that would distract them from performing as a monitor.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  There are many nuances to the rules for roofers.  If you are one, make sure you are familiar with the regulations and your requirements or speak to somebody who is.

9. Ensure Proper Use of Lifts

There are many ways in which a lift operator can do something wrong, so I won’t get into the actual operation of lifts here, but we do need to discuss fall protection in regard to lifts.  One thing that gets missed quite often is that any person in a boom lift, at any time, at any height, must be properly tied-off.  “Properly tied-off” not only means that they need to be secured to the engineered anchor point designed with the lift, but it means that they can’t wrap their lanyard around the rails. They need to have a lanyard that is actually going to protect them at the height at which they are working (see fall distance above).

With scissor lifts, things are a little different.  While the site you are working on or the owner of the facility/project may require you to tie off in a scissor lift, there is no regulatory requirement to do so.

However, the moment you forget to close your gate or secure your chain, you are no longer protected by the rails and are now in a fall protection violation.  It’s that simple.  Also, keep your feet planted firmly on the platform.  Both of them.

10. Train, Train, Train

It’s been mentioned in various paragraphs above, but it can’t be stressed enough.  If you want your employees to work safely at heights, they must be adequately trained.  Period.  The end.  Not only is training required by law, but there is also just too much room for error and confusion when it comes to a person without the proper knowledge trying to protect themselves at heights.

Falls are the leading killer in construction year after year.  Many people in other industries die from falls as well.  They are deadly.  Most of the time, there are no do-overs.  Arm your employees with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe.

Working safely at heights does not come by chance.  It is not something you luck your way into.  Working safely at heights takes preparation, education, and determination.  Take this brief list and dive into some of the more in-depth articles it links to.  When it comes to fall protection, you can’t have too much information.

About Badar Javed

I have worked in the safety industry for more than 10 years, collaborating with different organizations to establish and supervise safety protocols. My expertise covers a broad spectrum, from construction sites to oil refineries, and I have personally witnessed how safety measures safeguard both employees and customers.

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