Many industrial and construction job sites require employees to work above the ground. Because of this necessity, falling from an elevation is the second leading cause of workplace deaths in the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates employers to minimize the risk to their employees.
Under OSHA Regulations, (section 1926.501) employers have a duty to provide fall protection systems to all employees that are working more than six feet (1.8 m) above a lower level. The three main accepted types of fall protection systems are guardrails, safety nets and harnesses, though there are situations when other systems may be used.
Guardrails must be within 3 inches (8 cm) of 42 inches (1.1 m) in height and cannot have an opening wider than 19 inches (48 cm). A guardrail must be able to withstand a 200 pound (890 newton) force without failing. Guardrails must be constructed from a material that will not injure an employee or snag their clothing. Top and mid-rails cannot be constructed of a material less than a quarter-inch (0.6 cm) thick, as a thinner material could lacerate a falling worker.
A safety net should be placed as close as is practical to the area that employees are working, though no more than 30 feet (9.1 m) below. A net must be wide enough to catch a worker falling away from the building. For example, if a safety net is placed within 5 feet (1.5 m) of the work area, it needs to extend at least 8 feet (2.4 m) from the structure. After installation and at least every six months thereafter, a net must be tested by dropping a 400 pound bag of sand from the highest height employees will be working.
Personal fall arrest systems generally consist of a body harness, an anchor point and a lifeline. Such a system cannot permit an employee to free fall more than 6 feet (1.8 m) and must be twice as strong as the impact energy generated by an employee falling this distance. The harness system tested to withstand a load of 3,600 pounds (1633 kg) and must be visually inspected before each use. All webbing and ropes used in a fall arrest system must be made from synthetic fibers.
If an employer can demonstrate these three systems are unfeasible or unsafe in a particular job site he is allowed to implement a system specifically for that site to protect workers. Alternate systems may include a belt that prevents falls further than 2 feet (0.6 meters), warning lines to alert workers they are nearing an edge, or an employee dedicated to monitoring and warning other employees of falling.