OSHA Updates Fall Protection Rules

Recognizing that falls from heights and slips and trips on working surfaces are among the leading causes of serious work-related injuries and deaths, the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a final rule on Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems designed to provide better protection to workers in general industry from these hazards. The rule also updates and clarifies standards and adds training and inspection requirements.

Issued on November 17, 2016, the new rule more closely aligns general industry requirements with the existing standards in construction, and reflects advances in technology, industry practices, and national consensus practices. The final rule covers all vertical and horizontal walking-working surfaces, including floors, ladders, stairways, runways, roofs, scaffolds, dockboards, and elevated walkways.

By increasing consistency between the general industry and construction standards, the rule is expected to make compliance easier for employers who operate across these sectors. Thus, construction industry standards are extended to a wide range of general industry activities related to construction, including some types of utility work, manufacturing of building materials offsite, warehousing, equipment installation, and window cleaning.

Most of the provisions went into effect during the first half of 2017, although the effective dates of certain provisions are delayed until November 2017 or later. The rule mandates that the affected workers are trained—and retrained as necessary— about fall hazards and personal fall protection systems. According to OSHA, the rule will affect approximately 112 million workers at seven million worksites, and will prevent 29 fatalities and more than 5,842 lost-workday injuries annually.

Eliminating the existing mandate to use guardrails as a primary fall protection method, the new rule grants employers the flexibility to select a fall protection system that works best for them from a range of options that OSHA has permitted in construction since 1994, including guardrail systems, safety net systems, personal fall arrest systems, positioning systems, travel restraint systems, and ladder safety systems. OSHA defines fall protection as “any equipment, device, or system that prevents a worker from falling from an elevation or mitigates the effect of such a fall.”

Under the updated rule, employers are required to protect workers from fall hazards along unprotected sides or edges that are at least four feet above the surface level. The rule also establishes requirements for fall protection in specific situations, including in hoist areas and areas above dangerous equipment.

However, the final rule allows employers to use non-conventional fall protection practices in certain situations, such as designated areas on low-slope roofs for work that is temporary and infrequent, and fall protection plans if it can be demonstrated that guardrail, safety net, or personal fall protection systems are not feasible or create a greater hazard. In addition, the rule stipulates that personal fall arrest systems used in general industry can no longer include body belts.

The final rule also replaces current general industry scaffold standards with the requirement that employers comply with OSHA’s construction scaffold standards. For rope descent systems, the rule codifies a previous memorandum that allows the use of rope descent systems up to 300 feet above a surface level, and mandates that these systems be tested and certified as capable supporting 5,000 pounds for each worker attached.

In response to evidence showing that falls from ladders account for 20% of all general industry workplace injuries and fatalities, the rule includes changes to regulations on fixed and portable ladders. For fixed ladders higher than 24 feet, the use of cages and wells as fall protection will be phased out and replaced with ladder safety systems or personal fall arrest systems. All new fixed ladders or ladder sections must have these new systems in place within two years, but employers have until 2036 to install these systems on existing ladders.

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