Defying Gravity with the Hierarchy of Control

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, 700 fatalities were caused by falls to lower levels. Falling from heights is a preventable issue in workplaces, so it’s critical to address this hazard. Employers must assess hazards and use the hierarchy of controls for fall protection to provide maximum safety for their workers.

This May, employers have the opportunity to participate in the National Safety Stand-Down, which focuses on fall hazards in the workplace. During this event, employers are encouraged to have conversations with their employees about safety and fall prevention, using the appropriate methods and controls.

What is the hierarchy of controls?
The hierarchy of controls is a systematic approach used to manage and reduce workplace hazards. It involves prioritizing different actions to protect workers from exposure to risks. Here are the five levels of control measures, arranged from most effective to least effective:

  • Elimination: if possible, remove the hazard entirely.
  • Substitution: use a safer alternative if elimination is not feasible.
  • Engineering: modify the equipment or workspace to reduce the risk.
  • Administrative: establish work practices and policies to minimize exposure.
  • Personal Protection: use personal protective equipment (PPE) as a last resort.

How does the hierarchy of controls work for fall protection?
The hierarchy is similar, with a focus on eliminating fall hazards first before exposing workers. Below is the hierarchy of controls for fall protection, from most effective to least effective including:

  • Hazard elimination, which removes or modifies tasks, processes, or controls to eliminate worker exposure to a fall hazard, is the most effective level of protection. This method aims to eliminate the hazard altogether, making fall protection systems unnecessary. For example, re-designing a maintenance process at ground level in place of requiring these workers to complete the task on an open roof surface.
  • Passive fall protection aims to prevent falls without requiring any user intervention. They create physical barriers between the worker and the fall hazard, reducing the risk of potential accidents. Examples of passive fall protection include guardrail systems or parapet walls that meet guardrail height requirements.
  • Active fall restraint involves securing workers to an anchorage point using a short lanyard, preventing them from physically reaching the fall hazard. At this level, workers have a higher level of responsibility for their protection and will need equipment and appropriate training. Examples of active fall restraints include horizontal lifelines, rigid rails, and fixed-point anchor systems.
  • Personal fall arrest systems (PFASs) still expose the worker to the fall itself, but in the event that a fall occurs, these systems utilize fall protection equipment to arrest the fall and minimize the impact on the worker. This system is highly dependent on the proper training and use of equipment, which can be summarized by the ABCs of PFAS, including:


Anchorage: secure attachment points that support the fall arrest system.



Body harness: wearing a full-body harness to distribute fall forces and connect to the fall arrest system.


Connectors: linking the harness to the anchorage using shock-absorbing lanyards or self-retracting lifelines.


  • Administrative controls include implementing policies, procedures, and training to reduce the risk of falls. This includes developing and enforcing safe work practices, conducting regular inspections, and providing training on fall protection equipment and procedures.

Key to remember: By highlighting the preventability of falls, engaging in discussions about the hierarchy of controls, and placing worker safety as a top priority, organizations can make a significant impact in preventing falls from heights and safeguarding their employees.

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