The Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls

The Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls

As part of our extended look at preventing falls in construction, all of which is part of our observance of the recent 2018 National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction, we're going to take a look at the the fall prevention & protection hierarchy of controls in this article.

In addition to this article, remember we've also written the following related to falls, fall prevention, and fall protection recently:

There are also many other great fall protection resources out there, including the OSHA Fall Protection/Prevention Safety and Health Topic Page and this CDC/NIOSH Falls in the Workplace website. Please use the comments section at the bottom of this article if there are other fall prevention & protection resources out there you'd like to share with other readers.

Using the Hierarchy of Controls Concept for Fall Prevention & Protection

In this article, we'll explain how to apply the hierarchy of controls concept used for controlling all workplace hazards to fall prevention & protection issues with the goal of reducing the risk of a fall and avoiding the risk of injuries and fatalities that come with falls from height.

First, a quick review of the general hierarchy of controls idea. If you're familiar with this already, you can skip ahead to the next section.

What's a Hazard?

Put simply, it's something that can cause harm.

There are different kinds of hazards, including:

  • Toxic chemicals
  • Flammable chemicals
  • Corrosive chemicals
  • Explosives
  • Electrical
  • Ergonomics
  • Excavation
  • Heat & cold
  • Excavation
  • Mechanical
  • Noise
  • Radiation
  • Struck-by
  • Falls

It's that last one--falls--that we're most interested about in this article.

Some hazards have the potential to cause more harm, and some have the potential to cause less harm. Additionally, some hazards are more likely to cause harm, and some are less likely to cause harm.

Read this Job Hazard Analysis article for more on what a hazard is, and read this article on Safety and Risk for more on severity and probability.

What Does It Mean to Control a Hazard?

To control a hazard means to eliminate or reduce the potential that the hazard can cause harm. It's about making the workplace or work site a safer place to be.

What Do People Mean When Speaking of a "Hierarchy of Controls?"

The idea behind the hierarchy of controls is that when faced with an occupational hazard, safety experts should try one type of control to eliminate and/or reduce the hazard, then if that's not enough move on to a different type of control, and so on.

Therefore, there's a preferred/recommended hierarchy of controls, meaning the order in which safety professionals should attempt to use the various types of controls.

What Is the Hierarchy of Controls?

You'll see the hierarchy of controls presented in slightly different ways from source to source, but most are essentially the same and look something like the order below (this particular version of the hierarchy of controls is based partly on an OSHA Hazard Prevention & Control web page).

  1. Elimination: Completely remove the hazard
  2. Substitution: Replace the hazard with something that is less hazardous
  3. Engineering controls: Use engineering methods to isolate people from the hazard (example: put a barrier around a machine)
  4. Administrative controls: Change the way people work to reduce the risk
  5. Personal protective equipment: Use only as the last resort

Remember, the idea is that you would try to use the controls at the top of the list above before moving on to try to use the controls further down the list.

Where Can I Read More about the Hierarchy of Controls?

Read more on this OSHA Hazard Prevention website, our own What Is the Hierarchy of Controls? article, and/or this OSHA Fall Prevention Hazard Prevention document.

3 Additional Points about the Hierarchy of Controls

Here are three final points for you to chew on in relation to the hierarchy of controls:

  1. There's a little controversy about how the hierarchy of controls should be visualized. It's often visualized as a triangle, with the small angle at the top representing elimination. Some rightly claim that the large base of the triangle should be used to represent elimination at the top, since that's the preferred control. Others make the logical point that using a triangle to represent the hierarchy of controls is a poor visual metaphor and we should use something else. It's an interesting information design challenge.
  2. In many cases, it won't be possible to sufficiently reduce the risk presented by a hazard with simply one type of control. It's OK and even necessary to use several types of controls at times (for example, using an engineering control AND personal protective equipment).
  3. As mentioned earlier, you'll often see the different levels of the hierarchy of controls with different names, and/or you'll see hierarchies with more or fewer levels. For example, in some cases, Elimination and Substitution are represented as one level, and in other cases, Training and/or Work Practices are broken out from Administrative Controls as separate levels.

The Hierarchy of Controls as Applied to Fall Prevention & Protection

The first step of applying the standard hierarchy of controls model to fall prevention & protection is to identify the fall hazards at the work site.

Many organizations recommend you perform a fall hazard survey and complete a fall hazard survey report to correctly identify the fall hazards and begin the process of controlling them.

ANSI Z359.2 and the Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls

The ANSI Z359.2 standard, titled "Minimum Requirements for a Comprehensive Managed Fall Protection Program," is a great resource for fall prevention & protection. More immediately, to the point of this article, it spells out a version of the hierarchy of controls for fall prevention/protection that looks like this:

1. Elimination or Substitution
2. Passive Fall Protection
3. Active Fall Restraint
4. Active Fall Arrest
5. Administrative Controls

We'll look at each level a little closer below.

Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls Level 1: Elimination or Substitution

The best and safest thing to do is to eliminate the hazard. In the context of fall prevention & protection, this might mean re-designing the work so it can be done on ground level (can materials from "up high" be brought down to ground level with a crane, for example, or can work be done on the ground and then lifted to a roof?). Or maybe you can eliminate some or all of the working at heights risk by using something like a drone to visualize an elevated work area instead of sending a worker up there to inspect something? Or, in a similar manner, maybe you can use a machine to do the at-height work instead of a person.

No matter what the specific final solution is, clearly it's safest to just remove the hazard of having a worker working at heights.

Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls Level 2: Passive Fall Protection

If level one of the hierarchy, elimination or substitution, isn't possible, then you should consider level 2: passive fall protection. This means using barriers that prevent workers from getting close to an edge or a similar dangerous, elevated work area.

Barriers and similar guards that provide passive fall protection have the benefit of easily protecting larger groups of workers.

Fall Hazard Hierarchy of Controls Level 2: Guard Rails Image

Fall Prevention & Protection Level 3: Active Fall Restraint

There will be times when passive fall restrain isn't an option, and at that point, you'll want to consider the next level of the hierarchy of controls for fall hazards, which is active fall restraint.

This involves having a worker wearing a full-body harness and using a lanyard to attach the harness to a secure anchor point.

The goal with this level is not to stop a fall, but to prevent the worker from getting to the dangerous point at which a fall could occur (such as an edge).

Fall Prevention and Protection Hierarchy of Controls Active Fall Restraint Image

Fall Prevention & Protection Level 4: Active Fall Arrest

The next level down in the fall prevention hierarchy of controls is active fall arrest.

At the previous level, the harness, lanyard, and anchor point were intended to keep the worker away from the fall hazard.

At this next level of the hierarchy, the point is to use the harness, the lanyard, and the anchor point to arrest or stop an employee's fall once the fall has already occurred and before serious bodily harm or death would result.

Note that while this is appropriate in certain circumstances, such as when the worker HAS to work at an edge (or even beyond the edge), it's quite a ways down the preferred order of the fall prevention & protection hierarchy (we're protecting a worker from a fall here, not preventing the fall, and that's not as good).

Fall Prevention & Protection Hierarchy of Controls Fall Arrest Image

Active fall arrest also raises the possibility of suspension trauma and the need for a fall prevention emergency rescue plan.

Fall Prevention and Protection Suspension Trauma Image

Fall Prevention & Protection Level 5: Administrative Controls

Administrative controls can be a way to alert workers to fall hazards. This is the next level of the fall prevention & protection hierarchy of controls.

Administrative controls for fall hazards includes things like lights and alarms that are intended to alert the worker of the fall hazard.

These controls are quite weak and, while they have their place, it's easy enough for these to fail, and for a worker to fall to his/her death despite the warning.

Fall Prevention & Protection Level 6: Training

The ANSI Z359.2 standard includes training on fall hazards, fall prevention, fall protection, and fall avoidance as part of the level 5 administrative controls.

We're modifying that a bit to call out the importance of training for all fall hazards and for all workplace hazards in general.

Fall Prevention Protection Hierarchy of Controls Training Image

Training is never a fail-proof way to eliminate a hazard or create a safer workplace, but it's always a good addition to other controls in the hierarchy of controls.

The best way to provide training to workers on fall prevention & protection hazards and controls is to use a blended learning solution that makes use of several different types of training, including instructor-led classroom-style training, online safety training, field-based training, written materials, refresher training, job-based performance support, and more.

Here's an example of some an online fall prevention & protection training course you could use in a blended fall prevention & protection training program for employees who face fall hazards on the job.

What kind of fall prevention & protection training do you currently provide? Leave a note in the comments below.

Conclusion: The Hierarchy of Controls for Fall Prevention & Protection

We hope you find this overview of the general hierarchy of controls safety method, and demonstration of how to apply that to fall prevention & protection, helpful.

Let us know if you've got your own thoughts or experiences on this issue, or of course if you have any fall prevention/protection-related questions.


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