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History of Fall Protection

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The history of fall protection includes gradual changes in safe work practices, innovative equipment, and regulations to keep people safe.  Implementing practices to eliminate or reduce a fall hazard to keep employees safe developed over time.

Creation and utilization of passive fall protection equipment and personal fall protection equipment grew over time as well.  Before the Occupational Health and Safety Act was established, fall prevention and protection in the workplace was largely unregulated.  As we examine the history of fall protection, it is abundantly clear that fall protection has evolved over the years.

Early Workplace Safety

Consider the American Industrial Revolution, with dangerous working conditions in factories, where machines and power sources were largely unguarded. Production methods were often extremely dangerous.  Competition encouraged businesses to increase output, while there was little interest in improving safety.

Nearly 24 million immigrants arrived in the United States in the late 1800’s through early 1900’s, some living and working in cities. The cost of land in cities encouraged the building of skyscrapers which required many men to work at unprotected heights.  The construction industry had limited fall protection equipment.

Those injured on the job or their heirs after a fatal accident might sue for damages, but it was challenging to win.  Courts generally denied employer liability.

There were injuries and deaths.  Imagine facing work hazard after work hazard while working in factories without safety practices.  Further, imagine working at heights without fall protection equipment such as a lanyard, guardrail, or safety gate.


The state of Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to implement safety and health legislation in 1877.  Laws required safety precautions such as guards, shafts and gears, and adequate fire exits.  In the subsequent 13 years, nine more states required regular factory inspections and equipment such as guards to protect people from safety hazards.

In 1911, U.S. worker’s compensation laws were established.  Instead of requiring injured workers to go to court, suing for damages, these laws allowed for a fixed rate compensation.  This compensation appealed to employers because it reduced conflicts with people working for them and made costs more predictable.

The National Council for Industrial Safety, now known as the National Safety Council, formed in 1913 collected information and developed programs to prevent accidents.  There were approximately 23,000 industrial deaths in a workforce of about 38 million in 1913.

Golden Gate Bridge Construction Safety Practices

The construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge began in the 1930’s.  At the time of construction, expectations were that one person would die for every $1 million spent.  Joseph Strauss, chief project engineer, implemented revolutionary safety practices for that time.  Strauss required workers to wear hard hats and safety belts with tie off lines and to use respirators during riveting.

Three years into construction, Strauss invested more than $130,000 for a rope-and-mesh safety net suspended under the bridge.  This net gave those working on the bridge confidence to move across the construction of the bridge’s roadway and prevented deadly falls.  Nineteen men accidentally fell into the net and survived.  On February 16, 1937, a five ton platform collapsed, ripping through the net.  As a result, 12 men fell 220 feet into the water.  Ten of the 12 workers died from the fall.  Only 11 workers died during the entire project, but without the net and other safety requirements, that number could have been much higher.

Strauss’ original plan included safety railing installation to prevent suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.  According to Strauss’ guardrail plan:  “five feet, six inches high and are so constructed that any persons on the pedestrian walk could not get a handhold to climb over them.”  Architect Irving Morrow adjusted the designs, lowering the handrail and spacing rail posts further apart from one another.  As a result, when the bridge opened in May 1937, the guardrails were only four feet high.

Fall Prevention and Protection Solutions Evolve

Manufacturers developed fall protection products to improve safety.  A body belt, inspired by equipment worn by rock-climbers, was the standard fall protection system of the 1920’s.  But users had to manually tie and retie lines.  In the event of a fall, the user ran a risk of the belt slipping over their shoulders.

A better option of fall protection was introduced in the 1940’s: a safety harness. Inspired by military paratroopers in World War II, a safety harness offered an alternative to a body belt.  In 1933, The American Rolling Mill Company developed steel guardrail as a highway guardrail.  While originally intended for highways, industrial and manufacturing environments also use guardrails.

Throughout construction safety history, fall restraint and fall arrest equipment continued to improve.  From a full body harness which wraps around a person’s waist, shoulders, and legs to including a D-ring on the center of the back to provide a fall arrest connecting point.  A flexible horizontal lifeline like rope or cable system were expanded to include a rigid horizontal rail fall protection system (an enclosed track system).

As personal fall arrest systems evolved, the introduction of self retracting lifelines contributed to reducing fall distances, slowing speed of falls, and preventing injuries.  Other engineering advances contributing to the history of fall protection includes development of vertical lifeline systems to provide those who perform vertical climbing tasks with a safe and reliable personal fall arrest system.

More recently, there is safety innovation and technology such as 3D modeling.  3D modeling and use of emerging virtual reality modeling can provide a virtual representation of building or spaces to help plan for scaffolding, safe access, and safe tie off locations as well as planning for prevention of common accidents.

OSHA History of Fall Protection

OSHA took effect in 1971 to ensure a safe work environment by establishing and enforcing standards and by providing training, education, and assistance.  Goals include focusing its resources to reduce injuries, illnesses, and deaths in the workplace.  In 1970, there were about 14,000 U.S. workplace fatalities.  In 2019, a total of 5,333 workers died from a work-related injury. Many of these deaths resulted in falling, which is why roof safety railings now play such a key role.

Employers are incentivized to address any potential workplace fall hazard to avoid fines for regulation noncompliance.  Modern personal fall arrest equipment designs minimize injury in the event of a fall, and OSHA requires training on how to use the equipment.

There’s a revision history of OSHA fall protection standards to consider as well.  In 1986, OSHA provided notice for standard updates impacting fall protection in the construction industry.  OSHA issued the new Subpart M Fall Protection Standard in 1994.

Subsequently, OSHA’s Subpart M Fall Protection Standard applies when workers are working at heights of 6 feet or more above a lower level.  It also includes requirements for protection from falling objects, falls from tripping or falling through holes, and protection when walking and working around dangerous equipment.  Subpart M requires employers to provide OSHA compliant fall protection systems like a safety gate, metal roof guardrails, flat roof railings, or a system to tether or restrain workers to protect workers from edges.

Further, OSHA updated its Walking-Working Surfaces Standards in 2016.  As a result, since OSHA’s inception, attitudes about workplace safety changed.  Fall protection became a larger priority.  Industries began to see value in passive and active fall protection for employees.

Conclusion on the History of Fall Protection in the U.S.

The history of fall protection includes tremendous advances in worker safety practices and training, fall prevention and protection equipment, and safety regulations.  Today’s fall protection equipment, including fall arrest and fall restraint systems, meet rigorous industry standards.  You can read our coverage on specific topics such as OSHA guardrail requirements, or reach out to us directly.

Contact the team at EDGE Fall Protection to find help regarding all your safety solutions. We’ll listen to the needs of your business or facility, and recommend the best products to protect those who work for you.

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