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Fall-Related Violations Top OSHA’s Citation List Every Year. Why?

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Each year the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the nation’s primary workplace regulatory agency, publishes a list of its ten most-cited violations. Fall protection, specifically “General Requirements” (1926.501), remains the most-cited violation—as it was the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that.

Picture1-4Source: National Safety Council

In fact, fall protection violations have topped the agency’s list for 12 years. The latest report tallied 7,271 citations over general fall protection, a whopping 38% jump from the previous year. Those aren’t the only citations related to fall protection, either: Regulators identified 2,112 fall protection violations for “Training Requirements” (1926.503). That brings us to almost 9,400 citations combined in one year.

Glimpse through an OSHA guide on fall protection and you’ll get easily overwhelmed with the innumerable rules, sub-rules, and conditions. How is it that such a regulated field continues to witness so many violations?

Falling Short on Fall Safety

Many companies focus wholly on productivity, hurrying to complete arenas, condominiums, and towers as quickly as possible. An hour spent going over a fall rescue procedure or inspecting a full body harness is an hour not spent laying out metal decking or welding a sub-structure. As the saying goes: Time is money.

Time can also mean the difference between life and death. The extra time spent verifying a working crew’s experience, knowledge, and gear diminishes the severity of an incident. Yet it’s all too common to see a vast enterprise building something major (say, a stadium) and dismissing the time to inspect and instruct crews on proper usage of safety equipment, going over best practices, or rehearsing for emergencies. That company’s priority is likely meeting a looming and very ambitious deadline promised when it bid for the project.

The Cost of Safety Violations

What’s the cost of neglect?

As of 2023, a single OSHA penalty ranges from $0 to $156,259—the latter for the most severe “willful or repeated” violation. We’ve seen employers face notable fines in the past few years, including $1 million in penalties against a New Jersey contractor (and repeat violator) in February. We saw a record in 2021 when OSHA fined a Long Island construction company $1.2 million for 13 fall protection violations after a worker fell to his death.

Those fines can be painful to small contractors, but they’re a drop in the bucket to the large companies building skyscrapers, complexes, and even federal infrastructure. Those operations are the ones hiring hundreds to thousands of workers at a time. They’re rushing to meet deadlines, often scrimping on safety to do so. A million-dollar fine is like a papercut on a giant.

Outdated Regulations

Consider this: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) revise their Z359 fall protection standards multiple times a year. OSHA has not had a major change to its fall protection regulations in over 20 years. America’s key safety regulator still has no regulation, or even acknowledgement, for below-D-ring tie-off with leading edge exposures—now common practice with self-retracting devices (SRDs).

A Roadmap for Safety Managers and Regulators

ANSI/ASSP standards have filled that void, offering industry consensus on best practices. Though voluntary, the ANSI/ASSP Z359 fall protection standard provides a good roadmap for safety professionals—and OSHA regulators—across the United States. Compared to OSHA regulations, ANSI/ASSP Z359 standards cover more known hazards; establish strict requirements for design, testing, performance, labels, markings, and more; and provide a dedicated standard for a Comprehensive Managed Fall Protection Program (Z359.2).

Fall protection best practices and bare-minimum OSHA compliance have never been further apart from each other. With OSHA implementation timelines of 20+ years, action is needed sooner to curtail rising violations and fall fatalities.

Till then, it falls to safety professionals to enforce ANSI/ASSP standards and cultivate a better, safer workplace.

Zack Winters is Engineering Manager at FallTech.