Four Factors for Falls at Any Workplace

Posted on 11/28/2022 by Nick Waldron and Roger Marks

Slips, trips, and falls are a leading cause of work-related injuries. More than 200,000 workers every year experience a fall-related injury that causes them to miss one or more days of work.

In 2020, nearly one out of five injury and illness cases requiring one or more days away from work was fall-related (Source: National Safety Council). This statistic is especially striking given that COVID-19 cases in the workplace skewed the numbers significantly that year. 

Whether the workplace is an office building, a chemical manufacturing plant, a construction site, or any other location, employers should consider four common factors that contribute to trips and falls: 

  • Unsafe surfaces,
  • Unprotected edges,
  • Floor holes and wall openings, and
  • Improper ladder usage.

When all four fall factors are addressed, employers significantly reduce the risk of reportable injuries due to falls. While the OSHA regulations that apply to general industry workplaces (29 CFR Part 1910) and construction sites (29 CFR Part 1926) are independent of each other, both sets of rules address fall hazards and impose requirements that employers must follow to prevent injuries and maintain compliance.

Unsafe Surfaces

The OSHA regulations for walking-working surfaces apply to all surfaces that an employee walks on, works on, or uses to gain access to a work area or workplace location.  This includes floors and ramps as well as elevated surfaces like roofs, bridges, runways, catwalks, etc.

Slippery, cluttered, or unstable surfaces can lead to falls in any workplace. To avoid trips and falls on unsafe surfaces, employers must: 

  • Keep walking-working surfaces clean, orderly, and free of trip hazards,
  • Keep floors dry and warn employees when a wet floor is unavoidable,  
  • Immediately clean up spills that may cause an employee to slip, and
  • Regularly inspect all surfaces to ensure they are in safe condition.
Also, employers must take measures to ensure that each surfaces n employee will walk on or work on is of adequate strength and structural integrity to safely support the “maximum intended load.”

Unprotected Edges

Employees who work near the edge of an elevated surface must be protected from a potential fall. The height at which employers must provide fall protection for employees varies by industry; four feet in general industry workplaces, five feet in shipyards, six feet in the construction industry, and eight feet in longshoring operations.

OSHA also requires employers to provide fall protection when employees work over dangerous equipment or machinery, regardless of the height/fall distance.

In 2022, a worker died when he fell into a container of molten iron at a foundry that produces engine components. The employee, who had worked at the foundry for just eight days before the incident, was immediately incinerated. In this case, OSHA cited a lack of safety guards as a contributing factor to the employee’s death and penalized the employer for failing to provide adequate fall protection.

Floor Holes and Wall Openings

While many think of a “hole” as a circular opening in the floor or ground, the reality is that gaps and voids that pose fall hazards for employees come in all shapes and sizes—in general industry workplaces as well as construction sites. The types of holes and openings that can cause injury range from skylights and manholes to missing steps or floorboards, chips in concrete or pavement, chutes, hatchways, rotting flooring, ladder openings, floor drains, and many more.

Even if an opening is not large enough for an employee to fall through, a trip or twisted ankle can occur if precautions are not taken. OSHA defines hole to mean “a gap or open space in a floor, roof, horizontal walking-working surface, or similar surface that is at least 2 inches (5 cm) in its least dimension in a floor, roof, or other walking-working surface” [see 29 CFR 1910.21(b) and 29 CFR 1926.500(b)].

Employers must evaluate their workplace for any holes, openings, or gaps that could cause an injury to an employee and use appropriate methods to mitigate any hazards. Depending on the hole/opening size and the distance to a lower surface, mitigation measures may include things like floor markings, hole covers, guardrails, and toeboards. 

Four Factors for Falls at Any Workplace

Improper Ladder Usage

Ladder use violations are so common in the construction industry that they are listed separately from other fall protection violations on OSHA’s Annual 10 Most Cited list. Because ladders are so commonplace, OSHA also imposes requirements for using ladders in general industry workplaces like manufacturing plants, warehouses, retail stores, healthcare facilities, and many more.

Some of the regulations pertaining to ladders include load bearing requirements, minimum clear distance between side rails, and rung shape and spacing requirements. More specific ladder use regulations include maximum pitch and the types of ladders that can be used. 

While safely using a ladder may seem like common sense to many, it is crucial that employees understand how to select the proper ladder for the job, ensure the ladder is in good shape, and use the ladder properly to get the job done.

Don’t Fall into Complacency!

Falls from elevated surfaces may be the most likely to result in serious injury or death, but injuries can just as easily occur from basic housekeeping issues like messy or wet floors, damaged stairs, and broken or unsupported ladders.

By identifying and addressing common fall hazards, employers across all industries can significantly reduce the risk of reportable incidents that can result in injuries, lost time, and visits to the workplace from OSHA inspectors.

OSHA Safety Training—Anytime, Anywhere

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Tags: fall protection, OSHA compliance, reportable injuries, trip and fall hazards

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