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The Hierarchy of Rooftop Fall Protection

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True or false: there exists a “best practice” to mitigate all rooftop fall hazards.  On the surface, one might think this is a false statement because every rooftop poses unique challenges.  The use of the word ALL in our opening statement probably sends up some red flags too.  If you agree with this statement, pat yourself on the back and take a bow because you are correct.  That said, there is a twist—our rationale for agreeing with this statement may come as a bit of a surprise.  To understand our logic here, we need to start with a key point:  there is a difference between a best practice and a “best solution” when it comes to fall protection.

Our opening true or false statement is a bit of a trick question, but we used it to make a point.  Most of our clients equate fall protection systems with harnesses, lanyards, and anchors.  Manufacturers have spent years promoting the so-called ABC’s of fall protection:  anchorage, body harness, and connecting device.  In fact, some manufacturers take this easy-to-remember concept a step further, promoting the ABCD’s of fall protection, with the D representing descent and rescue.  The ABCD approach utilizes personal protective equipment (also known as PPE) and anchorage to create a secure connection that serves two main purposes: fall restraint and fall arrest.

In some instances, a PPE/anchorage combination is used to limit a worker’s ability to get close enough to an unprotected leading edge to sustain a fall (also known as fall restraint).  In other scenarios, we combine anchorage and PPE to create a fall arrest system that halts a fall before the worker hits the ground or structure beneath the work area.  Using PPE to create fall restraint and fall arrest systems is effective, but is just one of multiple approaches to rooftop safety, and in many instances, it is not your best option.  Put another way, the ABCD/PPE approach to fall protection is not the universally accepted “best practice” we all seek.  We can already hear what you must be thinking—“But you just said there is a best –practice to mitigate rooftop fall hazards…so what is it?”

To truly understand what might constitute a fall protection best practice, we need to make distinctions between single solutions (e.g., lifelines, single point anchors, guardrail) and an approach to fall protection.  The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) promote a hierarchical approach or preferred order of control for fall hazards.  To this way of thinking, fall hazards are mitigated with a systematic approach that relies on the simplest form of fall protection required by a given application.  Put another way, we work from the simplest to the most complex form of fall protection, as illustrated below:

  • Fall Hazard Elimination:  Building designs that locate HVAC equipment on ground level, 42” rooftop parapets, etc.  This approach is easiest to implement when the building is under construction or renovation
  • Passive Fall Protection Systems:  Safety Railings and Guardrail
  • PPE Oriented Fall Restraint Systems: Single Point Anchor
  • PPE Oriented Fall Arrest Systems: Horizontal Lifelines

By partnering with a fall protection company that adheres to a preferred order of control, you can systematically assess the pros and cons of each approach to arrive at a solution that best suits your specific application.  It is almost never cost-effective to move HVAC equipment to ground level or add 42” parapet walls to the entire perimeter of an existing building.  Some rooftops are too steep for a guardrail solution, and there are applications where the installation of an engineered lifeline is overkill.  None of these solutions will be right for EVERY rooftop fall protection application, but this is not the point here.  Starting with the most basic fall protection solutions, and working through the hierarchy of fall protection will always lead to the best solution.  So to address our opening statement, yes, there is a best practice for eliminating rooftop fall hazards, but your best practice is a methodology to arrive at a solution rather than the solution itself.

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Did You Know?

Anytime that work is being performed on a roof that has a pitch of 4:12 or higher, fall protection must be used at all times?