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Identifying Workplace Fall Hazards

Identifying Workplace Fall Hazards

Directorate of Analysis and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Novosel, Alabama

Identifying fall hazards isn’t always easy because appearances can be deceiving, often affected by our own perceptions. For example, if you’re 6 feet tall, you’re taller than a 4-foot-high platform, which makes it easy to assume the platform isn’t a fall hazard. On the other hand, if you’re standing on that platform, you are now looking down from a height of 10 feet. If you fall, even from 4 feet, you could be seriously injured.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognizes falls from any height can be serious. As a result, OSHA requires protection for those working at heights at or above 6 feet for construction work or 4 feet for general industry. Under the general industry standard, stated in 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910, Subpart D, Walking-Working Surfaces, OSHA provides requirements for guarding floor and wall openings to prevent workers from falling. These standards also apply to the military when not in military-unique situations.

Protection for floor openings

Every floor opening must be protected against accidental falls by a guardrail system or cover. These openings include stairs having four or more risers, hatchways or chute floor openings, skylights in the roof, pits and trapdoors, manholes and any other floor hole greater than 1-inch wide. Another way to protect against accidental falls from floor openings is to provide a door or gate opening directly to the stairway. OSHA states that a platform shall be provided between the doorway and stairway with the swing of the door not reducing the effective width to less than 20 inches.

Protection for wall openings

Every wall opening, whether permanent or temporary, with a drop of more than 4 feet to the next lower level must be guarded by standard railings and toe boards where there is exposure below to falling material. (This is to keep tools and other materials from falling on workers below.) Toe boards must be a minimum of 4 inches high with less than a quarter-inch clearance above floor level.

Protection for open-sided floors, platforms and runways Every open-sided floor or platform 4 feet or more above the next lower level or ground level must be guarded by a standard railing on all open sides except where there is an entrance to a ramp, stairway or fixed ladder.

Stairway railing requirements

As mentioned earlier, every flight of stairs with four or more risers must be equipped with standard handrails. OSHA states the following requirements for handrails:

  • Stairways less than 44 inches wide with both sides enclosed must have at least one handrail, preferably on the right side descending.
  • Stairways less than 44 inches wide with one side open must have a railing on the open side.
  • Stairways less than 44 inches wide with both sides open must have a railing on both open sides.
  • Stairways more than 44 inches wide, but less than 88 inches wide, require one handrail on each enclosed side and one stair railing on each open side.
  • Stairways more than 88 inches wide require one handrail on each enclosed side or a stair railing on each open side and an intermediate stair railing located in the middle of the stairway.
Standard railing, stair railing and handrail requirements

There are specific requirements when constructing and installing standard railings. As seen too often, flimsy chains guarding an open pit in the maintenance bay do not meet the requirements for fall prevention. Standard railings must consist of posts, a top rail and an intermediate horizontal rail or other form of protection between the top rail and the floor. The vertical height shall be 42 inches from the upper surface of the top rail to the floor, and the construction must be sturdy enough to support 200 pounds.

Stair railings protecting the open side of a stairway have the same construction requirements, except they shall not be more than 34 inches high or less than 30 inches to accommodate easy grasping. Handrails are similar to stair railings in that they must also be no more than 34 inches high or less than 30 inches and must withstand 200 pounds. It’s also important to note that handrails must provide at least a 3-inch clearance to the wall, and brackets will not be spaced farther than 8 feet apart.

Hazard identification

Identifying fall hazards can be challenging and depends on the nature of your job and working environment. So where exactly are the hazards? Examples include loading docks, security towers, motor pool bays and maintenance activities for vehicles and aircraft. Assess all work performed at elevated heights and determine if fall protection is required. Look for all unprotected walkways, working areas, holes, leading edges, stairways and other walking/working surfaces higher than 4 feet.

For construction activities, the trigger height for fall protection requirements is increased to 6 feet above the ground or next lower level and 10 feet for scaffolding. According to OSHA’s 29 CFR 1926 construction standard, the term “construction activities” refers to actual construction, alteration and/or repairs, including painting and decorating.


With all the requirements for fall protection, it is easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. However, always remember to protect individuals working or walking 4 feet above the ground or next lower level. Spending the time up front to conduct a thorough job hazard analysis and workplace assessment to identify fall hazards can save a lot of time and, possibly, even a life.


Requirements for fall protection during construction activities extend beyond the requirements for general industry. For more information on fall protection for construction activities, consult your local safety office, 29 CFR 1926 standards and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Safety & Health Requirements Manual (EM 385-1-1).

Did You Know?

According to the National Safety Council, in 2020, 805 workers died in falls, and 211,640 were injured badly enough to require days off of work. A worker doesn't have fall from a high level to suffer fatal injuries; 136 workers were killed in falls on the same level in 2020. Construction workers are most at risk for fatal falls from height — more than seven times the rate of other industries — but falls can happen anywhere, even at a "desk job."

  • 13 August 2023
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 384
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyWorkplace