Solution Summary: Hole Covers
A labeled hole cover is an engineering control that may help to reduce the risk of falling through a hole or opening in the walking/working surface. Hole covers are a physical barrier placed over a hole or opening in the working surface that, if installed properly, will prevent a person from falling through. A hole cover is an example of a fall prevention system. A fall prevention system is preferred over fall protection systems, such as safey nets and fall arrest systems, because they provide more positive safety means by not allowing the worker to fall in the first place.
Openings in the working surface should be covered as soon as they are created. Hole covers protect workers from falling through or stepping into holes. Covers also protect workers on lower levels from materials falling through holes. Even holes as small as 2 inches in its smallest dimension must be protected.
(Photo courtesy of ELCOSH)
Typical openings in walking/working surfaces include, but are not limited to:
- Stairwells prior to installation of stairs
- Floor heating, ventilation, and air conditioning registers
- Plumbing floor cutouts
- Open elevator shafts
- Ladder openings
Hole covers are ususally job made and fabricated on the job. Typically hole covers are made from plywood or metal plates. Most residential construction jobs will use job-made covers of plywood. If plywood is used, it must be at least 3/4-inch thick and be able to support, without failure, two times the weight of employees, equipment, and materials that may be imposed on the cover at any one time. Employers must pre-plan materials handling routes to ensure that hole cover load capacities are not exceeded. A metal plate may be fabricated on the job and used as a hole cover in certain situations.
General Requirements for Hole Covers
- Place covers over all holes on the site; for larger holes guardrail systems are an option.
- Construct the covers to support two times the weight that will cross over them. This includes employees, equipment, tools, and all construction vehicles.
- If plywood is used as a hole cover it must be at least 3/4-inch thick.
- All covers must be secured. Cleats, wire, nails or any other fastening method, which will not allow the cover to be displaced, can do this.
- After the cover is placed, write the word "hole" or "cover" on it for identification. This can be easily done with a can of spray paint.
- Covers should be installed so as to eliminate any tripping hazards.
Even small holes in which an employee couldn't fall through but could step through should be covered. Small holes can cause a worker to trip and fall, or break an ankle or leg. Small holes could also cause equipment on rollers to get caught and tip over. Also construction tools such as hammers could easily fall through the hole and strike a worker on a lower level. It is best to keep all holes protected no matter the size.
Skylights on rooftops should be treated as an opening. An inexperienced worker may see the skylight as a nice place to eat lunch or take a break. Unfortunately several workers have fallen to their deaths through skylights thinking the skylight would support their weight. There have been several instances where workers were clearing snow from a roof and failed to recognize they were stepping on a skylight and fell through. OSHA regulations indicate that a skylight must be covered with a screen, which can fit over the curved surface, or surrounded with a railing.
Working near unguarded holes, openings, skylights on the walking/working surface can significantly increase the risk of falls. Falls from height typically result in severe injuries or death. A labeled hole cover is an engineering control that may help to reduce the risk of falling through a hole, opening, or skylight in the walking/working surface.
How Risks are Reduced:
Properly constructed and installed hole covers and skylight screens provide a physical barrier which prevent workers or materials from falling through holes and skylights.
The risk of falling through a hole in the walking/working surface is reduced because the fall hazard is effectively eliminated with use of a correctly installed hole cover or skylight screen. Hole covers and skylight screens are examples of fall prevention. Whenever a fall prevention method can be utilized, the fall risk becomes minimal.
Effects on Productivity:
Resources are limited concerning the effects on productivity with use of hole covers.
Use of Other Fall Protection
When the use of a 4-ft by 8-ft, 3/4-inch sheet of plywood or other types of hole covers becomes impractical, guardrails may be necessary. If guardails are opened to allow material transfer, a restraint system or fall arrest systems must be used.
During construction work, avoid cutting or creating holes in the work surface until absolutely necessary. This limits the employee exposure to the fall hazard. If the hole does not need to remain open for work to progress, then it should be covered immediately. If the hole needs to remain open for the work to progress, then another form of fall protection (i.e., fall arrest system or restraint system) should be used to protect workers from the fall hazard.
Replacing Hole Covers
In addition to uncovered open holes, there may be instances where a hole cover was removed during a work activity and not reinstalled. Another group of workers started working the next day and did not notice the open hole permitting someone to fall through. It is essential to replace hole covers as soon as possible after they are removed for any reasons, since another group of workers may not notice the newly created hazard. Workers should be trained to recognize fall hazards such as floor openings and unguarded skylights. If an open hole in the work surface is sighted, it should be guarded or covered immediately. Employers should designate a responsible person to perform a pre-work inspection for fall hazards such as open holes.
Alternatives to Hole Covers
There are other solutions available to protect workers from falling through openings in the walking/working surface. Guardrails can be used as a barrier surrounding the opening to prevent worker access to the hazard. Personnel and debris netting can be used under larger openings to protect workers and to stop debris from falling to lower levels. Netting can be installed directly into poured concerete floors and cut away with a utility knife when work is completed. Restraint systems can also be used to prevent workers from reaching an open hole.
Fullen, Mark, CSP and Savage, Kristen - West Virginia University
Fall Protection Equipment
Fall protection equipment for residential construction classified by the type of equipment and the phase of construction can be found on this Washington University website. http://www.ot.wustl.edu/fptech/homepage.htm