A Closer Look at Fall Protection: Guard Rails & Fixed Barriers

Posted by Empire Safety on Apr 26, 2017 10:06:00 AM

Fixed barrier systems and fall protection

When it comes to fall protection, we tend to spend a lot of time talking about fall arrest systems. And of course, they are an absolutely necessary part of a total fall protection program. Yet, the first step in creating a safe work environment should go in order of

  • Elimination
  • Passive fall protection
  • Active fall restraint
  • Active fall arrest 
  • Administrative controls
Let’s a take a minute to review the recommended safety steps:

ANSI Z359.2 Fall Hazard Hierarchy:

  1. Elimination or Substitution: This is easier to accomplish in the planning stages of a job. How can the work be completed without the need for a worker to be put at risk of a fall? Are there machines that could complete the task?

  2. Passive Fall Protection: Once attempts to eliminate a hazard are completed, barriers such as guardrails should be used to prevent workers from getting too close to a hazard or falling

  3. Active Fall Restraint: This requires active participation from the worker by wearing PPE such as a harness and using lanyards to tie off to prevent going near a hazard or falling

  4. Active Fall Arrest: In this method of fall protection, a worker wears a full body harness and a shock absorbing lanyard or self-retracting lifeline to stop a fall. Safety nets and positioning devices can also be employed to limit a fall

  5. Administrative Controls: Some areas may be a fall hazard, but may not appear to be. That’s why warning signs, flags, audible alarms and fall protection training are necessary to protect workers and any bystanders

 Watch the Fall Protection Training Video Now

In most cases, it is much easier, more cost effective and less stressful to avoid a fall rather than stop one. We have devoted quite a bit of time discussing personal fall arrest systems (PFAS) and fall protection. It’s also important to explore the benefits of fall prevention, a largely misunderstood aspect of fall safety.

The Final Rule on Walking/Working Surfaces (29 CFR 1910 subpart D and I) allows general industry (especially work done on residential roofs) greater flexibility in choosing the method of fall prevention/protection that will best protect the worker. Safety measures must also be in place if there is a chance that a worker could fall in or on any dangerous machines or equipment.

The rule also requires that employees on walking/working surfaces, with an unprotected edge 4 feet above a lower level, must be protected by one or more of the following (PFAS are also an option):

Fixed barrier systems:

  • Guard rails: There’s more to choosing a guardrail than meets the eye. Depending on the job, it may require a permanent or a portable system; just be sure if you need a non-penetrable guard rail system you select the right one. Modular systems are also available, if moving rails are necessary.

  • Handrails: A single railing (bar or pipe) should be provided on open sides of all exposed stairways and platforms and handrails provided on at least one side of closed stairways. Requirements depend on stairway width and number of closed sides for every flight of stairs (4 or more risers).

  • Skylight Protection: This is often overlooked when working on rooftops. And falls at this point can often be fatal. Whether you use a skylight screen or guardrail, choose the right protection for the application and safety of worker (CFR 1926.501 (b)(4) , CFR 1926.502 (i)).

  • Surface opening protection: Unprotected sides such as wall or floor openings during construction should be covered or guarded with material that will withstand the weight of workers and equipment (up to 2 times the weight). Always identify the hazard with a safety sign warning presented in highly visible red lettering.

  • Wall openings must be guarded with a top rail, intermediate rail and a toeboard.

  • Floor openings must be covered with material at least 2” thick, secured in place and have sloped or feathered edges to avoid becoming a trip hazard.

  • Travel restraints: Another option for fall prevention is actually restraining workers from coming too close to a potential fall hazard. You must take into account the workability of this option; travel restraints can sometimes limit the workers ability to perform a specific task.

Additional safety measures:

  • Safety nets: Fall containment systems are a passive fall protection method meant to arrest a fall. They can also be handy to catch fallen tools, debris and can be used to provide protection on unguarded holes, openings or skylights.

  • Surface protection/Non-slip floors: A control measure as simple as keeping walkways clear and unobstructed, removing debris and ensuring floors and walkways aren’t slippery is also overlooked in fall prevention.


Workplace injuries cost companies nearly $1 billion a year in worker’s compensation and medical costs, and falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry. Fall protection is also the most commonly cited violation, year after year. Falls from height are complicated safety concerns, they cost employers money and workers their lives. So, why is it that a good portion of inspections find inadequate or missing safety measures on any given jobsite?

With return on investment for providing safety equipment and PPE reaching $3–6 for every $1 or 2 spent, it’s a no brainer. Factor in loss of production, workers’ compensation claims, medical bills, litigation, decreased morale and increased insurance costs; providing the RIGHT equipment for the job is just good business.


Topics: Fall Protection, Fall Protection Training