Should OSHA Require Safety Harnesses for Construction Workers?

Earlier this month, Gilbane Building Co. proposed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should require construction workers to wear safety harnesses whenever they are working at a height of 6 feet or more above a lower level. This requirement is part of Gilbane’s safety program, which they claim has prevented 20 potential fatalities since 2011. It’s hard to argue with a company that has won multiple industry safety awards with a safety program that has resulted in 95% of projects completed having zero lost time injuries and 80% of projects finished with zero recordable injuries in 2015.

Safety Harnesses & Fall Protection According to OSHA

Currently, OSHA requires that employers provide fall protection for construction workers on a walking or working surface with an unprotected edge that is 6 feet or more above a lower level. Fall protection approved by OSHA includes guardrails, safety net systems, and personal fall arrest systems (i.e. safety harnesses). Employers are permitted to use any or all of the three prescribed fall protection systems in most instances, not specifically safety harnesses as Gilbane recommends.

The rule covers a number of areas and activities where fall protection is required and the fall protection systems allowed. For example, protecting workers from falls into holes, such as skylights, another acceptable means of fall protection is installing a cover over the opening. When working on the face of reinforcing steel or formwork above 6 feet, employees can use a personal fall arrest system, safety net, or positioning device system.

The rules are also different when it comes to working on scaffolding and for steelworkers. For scaffold work, employees must have fall protection when working at a height of 10 feet or more above a lower level. The type of fall protection required by OSHA varies depending on the type of scaffold being used. A ladder jack scaffold or a float scaffold requires a personal fall arrest system (aka: safety harness) while a single-point or two-point adjustable suspension scaffold requires both a safety harness and a guardrail system.

Workers performing steel erection work aren’t required to use fall protection until they are working at heights of 15 feet or more above a lower level. Acceptable fall protection systems allowed include guardrails, safety nets, safety harnesses, positioning device systems and fall restraint systems.

OSHA has not responded to Gilbane’s safety harness proposal and doesn’t have any proposed rulemaking currently to make any changes to their fall protection standards. OSHA’s reasoning for having different height thresholds for fall protection for different aspects of construction such as scaffold work and steel erection was cited as being in line with consensus standards at the time and with the difficulty for deploying fall protection at the 6-foot threshold for these activities.

Worker Deaths From Falls

Judging by the increasing number of construction worker fatalities over the past several years, it might not be a bad idea for OSHA to update their current rules regarding fall protection in construction. Worker deaths as a result of falls increased 37% between 2011 and 2014. The total number of construction worker deaths increased by 21.8% during that same time.


359 of the 899 construction worker deaths in 2014 were caused by falls – 40% of all construction fatalities. There were 4,821 workplace fatalities in 2014 and construction accounted for 18.6% of all worker deaths, the highest for any industry. Take a look at OSHA’s most cited standards for construction firms and it’s no surprise why fatalities from falls continue to climb each year. Six of the top 10 all had to do with working at height. The top four have held their spots for a number of years now and cover fall protection, scaffolds, and ladders.

The makeup of the construction workforce is drastically different from what it was just a decade ago. Many highly skilled and experienced workers left the industry when the recession hit and never came back when things started improving. This left employers having to fill positions with less experienced workers. As construction activity continues to increase, the focus on safety needs to be at the forefront of every company. According to the numbers, the inclusion of safety harnesses should be seriously considered.

When creating a safety program for your construction company, your policies, procedures, and protocols shouldn’t be a mirror image of OSHA’s construction industry standards. Abiding by OSHA rules should be the bare minimum and just doing the bare minimum is no way to create a culture of safety. You need to create a culture where every employee of the company strives toward a goal of zero accidents on every project. For more information, be sure to check out our 8 Tips to Building a Stellar Safety Program.





43 thoughts on “Should OSHA Require Safety Harnesses for Construction Workers?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. The point about holding up production is part of the reason we currently have different height thresholds for scaffolding and steel erection work in construction. OSHA also has different thresholds for maritime and general industry for when fall protection is required.

  1. I am in favor of the rule change, we in the industry need to protect our workers, a harness system is just pennies when you look at the big picture of severe injury or death from falls.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Wayne. Agreed, the cost to purchase harness systems and the extra time it takes to properly tie-off are well worth the investments.

  2. NO. OSHA should not ‘require’ safety harnesses at the 6′ level. I’ve been in business 27 years with no lost time and only 1 sprained thumb incident. Screen potential employees better and you don’t need all the extra equipment.

    1. Thanks for the insight, Terry. OSHA hasn’t made any indication that are moving in this direction, or even considering any rule changes to their standards on fall protection in construction. This is just an added safety measure that some companies incorporate into their safety programs.

    2. You mean screen the employees that are always risking their lives for the boss that demands the job gets done fast. I see it all the time guys fall and never report it because their so scared to lose their job. I feel a comp. That is asking workers to work on 12 ft ladders to work up high with no fall protection and does not provide lifts is just another company that has little care fore their employees and more care about the job getting done just to save money.

    3. Hey, does anybody know if it is required to have a harness if you are sole propriater/owner of the roofing company?

  3. We also follow the 6 ft limit but a harness with shock absorbing lanyards won’t really be effective at that distance. The personal fall arrest system is the way to go instead.

    1. Thanks, Bob. When using a harness and any kind of lanyard you have to take into account the free fall distance and make sure you won’t hit a lower level before the lanyard stops your fall.

      1. Kendall,
        Is it required for the sole propriater/owner to be harnessed in. Or is it to his discretion?

        1. Brian,

          My understanding is that OSHA regulations do not apply to sole proprietors or self-employed individuals.

  4. Sometimes these efforts to help actually increase the chance of falling. Like working from a higher than six feet, say a job that would require a eight foot ladder, the requirement is to tie off with harness. This means a person would then have to go to a higher position to install a I-beam clamp at 10 to 12 ft. I realize there are safe ways to reach that height to tie off but the average person is just going to climb the eight foot ladder and install the I-beam clamp. I also know of a person who fell off a six foot ladder and hit her head and was killed so it can happen. As a person who has been in construction for 35 plus years I have welcomed most of the changes the industry has been forced to do through OSHA. But, all things considering I would vote no.

  5. No, we do not need more OHSHA. What we need is more common sense. You should have mandatory drug testing paid for by the GC. That will eliminate a lot of problems. I do not believe these reports from Gilbane. Connecticut is the only state where your OSHA 10 or 30 is only good for 5 years. Just a big money grab.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Dave. My understanding is that OSHA 10/30 hr. construction training is only required by a handful of states when working on public projects.

        1. You’re correct Meri, in CT, NV, and NY the OSHA 10-hour training must be renewed every 5 years. I believe the nine states that require OSHA 10 or 30-hour safety training for construction workers on public projects are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

  6. I am an OSHA outreach trainer , And an Electrician with 40 years experience. I agree with John Gobel’s post. Sometimes what you would have to do to tie off may create a greater hazard that you are already exposed to. Explain What a worker on an extension ladder would tie off to . OSHA has accomplished a lot since 1970 but I think this one would put wokers in more danger.

    1. Thanks for the insight, Dennis. I’m not sure is an extension ladder is covered under Gilbane’s safety program. OSHA doesn’t require any fall protection for working on portable ladders.

  7. I am a retired architect and former carpenter. The risks I took in high work, particularly framing of roofs, without a harness, was stupid. I am buying a harness today for myself for working on my house and for my tree trimming. If I am willing to do it for myself, then we should do it for the skilled workers who are hard enough to find. We don’t want to have to replace them.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Steve. I completely agree. I used to get on a 32-ft. ladder to clean the gutters at my parents’ house with nothing to stop a fall except the ground.

  8. Oh, boy! Some idiot company safety writer wants to tell he ‘had an OSHA rule’ changed. Big Whooop! just what we need is some more government jerk telling us how to work. Wayne Ferguson needs to read the comments of EVERY other person who has posted a comment. Hire competent employees and you won’t have to hold their hand.

    It won’t be long before they tell you what kind of paper to put in the Port-A-Potty.

    1. Thanks, George. There are some companies that go above and beyond OSHA requirements to provide an added layer of safety and protection for their workers. At this time, OSHA has not issued any proposed rulemaking to make changes to their current rules for fall protection in construction.

  9. I with Dennis Campbell on this one. If we’ve gotten to the point where additional safety rules actually make people less safe we’re going in completely the wrong direction.

    Far too often have I seen proposals like this, or even new regulations, that seem to completely throw common sense out the window. Sure there are times when fall protection at 6 feet would save lives, but how many more are we going to lose in the process. I’m really worried we’re already half way down the “slippery slope” already.

  10. “Judging by the increasing number of construction worker fatalities over the past several year, it might not be a bad idea for OSHA to update their current rules regarding fall protection in construction”.
    This might help people decide their answers.
    #ubi #ulticon #ulticonbuildersinc

  11. just want to ask . when lifting of spun pile or steel pile . in which the riggers are on top of the spun pile or steel pile . Are their required to wear their Safety harness ?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Redzuan. I don’t think personnel is supposed to be lifted while on top of steel or spun piles.

    2. Thanks for the reply Mr Kendall .

      One more question , if the lifting of the spun pile or steel pile . how do the riggers unhook it . meaning that the riggers have to be going on top of the spun pile or steel pile to unhook it . . correct me if i’m wrong sir

  12. OSHA is constantly increasing the safety requirements for performing Tree Services. In the tree care industry, it’s a constant struggle to adhere to the regulations and get the workers to comply. I suppose that is true for any industry but since OSHA has been finding more interest with the tree work industry because of accidents reported we are all feeling the added pressure to follow the set safety standards. For our company we want our guys to stick around because good work is hard to find and who needs a comp claim over their head. Harnesses are constantly worn and if they have to start attaching to the rigging at 6Ft. so be it. 6 Ft becomes 15 Ft. quick. I believe it’s all for the best even if there is additional time involved in adhereing the the regulations.

  13. Yes, OSHA should require safety harnesses for construction workers in order to provide more safety to workers as their life is always on sake while working. Also every worker has a right to work in a safe working environment.

  14. I’m running a project in NYC
    Pipe scaffold work in a 18 floors building
    Do my employees and all users need a harnes to walk on the pipe scaffold ?

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