Fall Protection Regulations Take Effect March 2013

By Roy Maurer Dec 5, 2012

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect OSHA's extended deadline for implementation of new fall protection standards applicable to residential construction contractors. The new deadline is March 15, 2013.

Full enforcement of fall protection regulations published in 2010 for the U.S. residential construction industry will go into effect Mar. 15, 2013.

The start-date for full enforcement had been delayed five times by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because of industry opposition.

Under the new requirements, workers engaged in residential construction six feet or more above lower levels are to be protected by what OSHA deems conventional fall protection equipment, such as harnesses tethered to a roof, guardrails, safety nets, personal fall arrest systems (PFAs) or scaffolds. Roofers can no longer rely on the 25-foot, ground-to-eave height threshold. Slide guards—vertical wooden boards attached to roofs—will no longer be acceptable as a form of fall protection, regardless of the roof pitch or height of the roof eave, unless the builder can show that OSHA’s prescribed methods would create a greater hazard than unconventional methods or are not feasible for technological or economic reasons. In these cases, the employer must provide an explanation in the form of a written, site-specific fall protection plan that details reasons why the conventional fall protection systems are infeasible or pose a greater hazard.

These new requirements replace the Interim Fall Protection Compliance Guidelines for Residential Construction that have been in effect since 1995 and permitted employers engaged in certain residential construction projects to use specified alternative methods of fall protection.

Employers did not have to prove that conventional fall protection was infeasible or more hazardous, nor did they need to provide a written fall protection plan.

Residential construction had been exempted from conventional fall protection guidelines because of concerns that the fall protection systems would not be feasible for small construction sites, and the necessary cables and restraints could increase the hazards workers might face.

Falls remain the leading cause of death for workers engaged in residential construction, with an average of 40 workers suffering a fatal fall from a residential structure each year, according to OSHA.

These types of worker injury and fatality statistics prompted OSHA to replace the original interim guidelines with stricter safety regulations.

“We essentially gave residential construction a break [under the previous regulations],” said Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels, speaking before the National Safety Council Congress in October 2012. “We said we wouldn’t apply the same rules for fall protection that we applied to the rest of the construction industry. In December 2010, we said we’re going to enforce the same rules across the board.”

Roofers Concerned

The National Roofing Contracting Association (NRCA) has been vocal in its opposition to the revised regulations since they were introduced.

“We continue to have serious concern about the directive because of the limitation of options to provide fall protection for our workers on those roofs,” said NRCA Associate Executive Director Tom Shanahan to SHRM Online. “OSHA has prescribed a one-size-fits-all option that doesn’t allow for the flexibility that’s needed in our workplace, or take into account the variety of roof surfaces, heights and slopes that our workers work on.”

Some of the reasons given for opposing the new requirements include the potential dangers of setting up a personal fall arrest system on roofs, which Shanahan said could in some cases be more dangerous than the roofing job itself, and the impracticality of applying guardrails and safety nets on homes when the majority of residential roofing jobs take a maximum of one or two days.

The NRCA prefers a directive that allows for a variety of fall protection options best suited to each project, Shanahan said. He said the directive should allow the use of slide guards and take into consideration the challenges of work where repair projects take less time than the time to install personal fall arrest systems. Installing guardrails and scaffolding are not feasible, and fall arrest systems can cause significant tripping hazards on lower-sloped residential roofs, he said.

“We’re very supportive of workers using personal fall arrest systems,” Shanahan emphasized. “The issue is knowing when it’s best to use slide guards, and when it’s best to use PFAs. Not having the option hamstrings safety.”

Shanahan noted that the new requirement to submit a written, site-specific fall protection plan that details the reasons why slide guards would be infeasible or create a greater hazard than what OSHA is prescribing is impractical for small contractors working on these short-term jobs. “The likelihood of that paperwork burden occurring is [low]. It’s setting up small contractors for easy citations,” he said.

Shanahan was also skeptical of OSHA approving such plans that deviate from the requirements under the current directive because “by their own admission in the rule OSHA states that it considers conventional fall protection to be feasible and does not create greater hazards, so that hurdle is very high.”

OSHA Provides Outreach

Since the original enforcement date of June 2011, OSHA has performed more than 2,500 onsite visits, and conducted hundreds of training sessions and presentations related to fall protection in residential construction, the agency reported. OSHA’s regional and area offices also conducted more than 800 outreach activities on the directive.

“The agency will continue to work with employers to ensure a clear understanding of, and to facilitate compliance with, the new policy,” OSHA said in a news statement.

OSHA’s Residential Fall Protection Web page has resources to help employers comply with the new regulation. Employers are also encouraged to take full advantage of OSHA’s On-site Consultation Program, which provides free compliance assistance services.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow me on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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