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The Guardian Fall Team Blog

Sometimes it’s easy to get tied up in the technology of fall protection. I mean, who isn’t impressed with the current offerings of SRLs, lanyards, or harnesses for Fall Restraint or Fall Arrest solutions? There is no doubt that the combination of a full-body harness, anchor point, and connector is one of the most effective means of keeping you safe on the job. But as effective as those high-tech pieces of gear are at keeping you safe, sometimes your best bet is actually a low-tech solution – specifically a guardrail.

Back To The Beginning

To see why guardrails can be a more effective solution, we first have to go back the good ol’ Hierarchy of Fall Protection. To refresh your memory they are, from most safe to least safe:

    Hazard Elimination – No fall hazard
    Fall Prevention – Worker prevented from accessing a fall hazard via a barrier.
    Fall Restraint – No barrier at fall hazard, but worker is physically restrained from reaching hazard
    Fall Arrest – Potential exists for worker to access fall hazard
    Safety Monitor – All other options infeasible / dedicated individual monitors workers for safety

One Of These Is Safer Than The Other

Remember, it is always preferable to choose a safer option (closer to the top of the list) than one with more risk (closer to the bottom). I agree, that sounds ridiculously obvious, but believe me, there is some nuance in that statement. Humor me with a scenario, por favor: Two guys walk onto a jobsite, one with a harness and an SRL, the other with a tool belt and hard hat. Which worker is better prepared to protect himself from a fall? Of course it’s the guy with the tools and hard hat. Pretty clear, no? No? The reason he is the safer of the two is that in fact, he is prepared to not fall, whereas the fellow in the harness and SRL is prepared to fall. And of course, like a good storyteller, it’s what I’m not telling you that is the crux of this whole situation: the guy with the tools and hard hat will be working behind properly constructed guardrails, and at no time will even be exposed to the risk of a fall. You see, no matter how effective a harness or SRL might be at protecting you from a fall once it happens, nothing trumps not falling in the first place - nothing. Capiche?



The Effort And Time Are Worth It

Remember, no one said protecting yourself was going to be easy, so just because installing guardrails might take a bit longer, or need more planning, doesn’t mean it’s not a better option than one that may expose you to a fall – regardless of how good your gear is. I hear the sceptic – “Why is he trying to talk me out of buying an SRL and harness and into a guardrail?” I’m not. I’m just trying to get you to think of fall protection as a process of choosing and implementing the safest option possible, and sometimes that means re-thinking your options.

Now that I’ve got you thinking guardrails, let’s go over some of the pertinent information you’ll need to know to make sure your solution is a sound one. These specifications come directly from the OSHA 1926.502 standards, but if you read them there, you’ll miss all my witty banter and incisive analysis – so, come, all ye Fortunatos**, let’s proceed through the catacombs, shall we?

By The Numbers

The top rail of guardrails must be 42” ± 3” from the working surface, which translates to 39” to 45”. If a guardrail is too low, it in and of itself becomes the edge of a fall hazard, and if it’s too high, it will not adequately protect the worker from falling between the top rail and the midrail. There is caveat on this top rail height though. If a worker is wearing stilts (say for installing or finishing drywall), the top rail shall (OSHA’s word, not mine) …be increased an amount equal to the height of the stilts.” It’s pretty clear: you wear 18” stilts, you raise your top rail 18” while work commences.

Yes, I used a term above (midrail) before I defined it, so let’s get that out of the way. Midrails (also screens, mesh) “…shall be installed between the top edge of the guardrail…and the walking /working surface.” An exact measurement is not given because of the possible variance of top rail height, just make sure the midrail is, well, midway between the top rail and the working surface.

Toeboards are also an important part of guardrails because they prevent equipment from falling through the guardrail and onto people below. Remember, fall protection means preventing people and equipment from falling. Toeboards should be a minimum of 3 1/2” tall (with no holes bigger than 1”), no more than ¼” off the work surface, and span the entire length of the guardrail. Otherwise brother Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, will send some hapless roll of nails through the gap you thought wasn’t a big deal – it’s all a big deal.

To hold all these horizontal parts together, vertical posts shall be located no more than 8’ center-to-center for the entire span of the guardrail. This spacing helps to maintain the necessary strength of the individual guardrail components, which of course combine to create a sturdy barrier for Fall Prevention. Provided all strength requirements are met, however, spacing at intervals greater than 8’ is permitted—but always be sure to comply with any state-specific OSHA regulations or company-specific policies if applicable.

Speaking of strength, OSHA not only specifies the suitable measurements for guardrails, but also the strength requirements of the horizontal members. Don’t worry, it’s easy to remember. Top rails must withstand “...a force of at least 200 lbs. applied within 2 any outward or downward direction…”, midrails must withstand, “…a force of 150 lbs. applied in any downward or outward direction…”, and toeboards must withstand “…50 lbs. applied in any downward or outward direction….” So, starting from the top, it’s 200, 150, and 50 lbs. respectively. Easy.

What To Do, What To Do?

The most straightforward way to solve the guardrail riddle is of course with a pre-made system such as our G-rail. A series of G-Rails combined with our QuickSet Multi-Directional Baseplate can solve just about any guardrail question you may have. For more complicated installations, you can combine our G-Rail with a swing gate or collapsible adapter for ease of access. Available too, are our parapet clamps with guardrail posts, or C-Slab grabbers, which attach securely to the edge of concrete decking.

But if you don’t have a G-Rail or other solution handy, don’t worry, OSHA accepts site-built guardrails, and even provides some guidance on the materials. In general, you must use minimum 1500 lb-ft/in(2) construction grade lumber with the following minimum dimensions: posts 2” x 4”, top rails 2” x 4”, midrails 1” x 6”. Yup, all common materials found at just about every single jobsite – there goes your excuse not to consider guardrails.

Remember, the safest way to fall is to not fall at all, and by taking a few extra steps to consider a Fall Prevention option versus a Fall Arrest or Fall Restraint solution, you are taking a step in the right direction – away from falls altogether.

**Fortunato (note the irony), was the rather unlucky fellow who the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado showed some of his handy brickwork...