All too often, seasoned workers and managers find themselves relying on past experiences—where they did not get caught breaking rules. Yet, this attitude can be the fast-track to financial and, even worse, fatal disasters.
What are Employers’ Responsibilities?
Fall protection has many guidelines, and OSHA has made it very clear who to protect workers. Companies and their safety managers cannot ignore their responsibilities.
OSHA’s own website clearly states: “Initially, employers must assess the workplace to determine if walking or working surfaces have the necessary strength and structural integrity to safely support the workers. Once it is determined that the work surfaces will safely support the work activity, the employer must determine whether fall protection is required and, if so, select and provide workers with fall protection systems that comply with the criteria.”
Generally, fall protection can be provided using guardrail systems, safety net systems or personal fall arrest systems (PFAS). OSHA refers to these systems as “conventional fall protection.” Other systems and methods of fall protection may be used when performing certain activities. For example, when working on formwork, a positioning device system could be used.
Major Areas of Concern
There are many components to putting together the right kind of plan for fall protection. Here are the most updated guidelines to follow.
Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Systems
Historically, fall protection has been the most-violated OSHA standard; therefore, the agency has updated a final rule on walking-working surfaces.
The use of rope descent systems up to 300ft above a surface level is now permitted. PFASs can no longer include body belts, which are waist belts with D-rings or attachment points. Workers must receive training on personal fall protection and fall hazards and systems.
Roof Work Changes
Formerly, OSHA stated no safe distance when it came to working on an unprotected roof edge. Under the new rule, if the distance is less than 6ft from the roof edge, conventional fall protection systems are required. This includes guardrail systems, PFASs and safety nets.
Additionally, employers can no longer use chains to close access openings. Similarly, no alternate options for parapets (a barrier that serves as an extension of the wall of a terrace, walkway or balcony) are allowed.
Stairways, Ladders and Guardrails
The new general industry regulations for guardrails, ladders and stairways now are associated with those in the construction industry. Employers must provide guardrails for all work at a height of 42in (+/– 3in) or higher.
For fixed ladders that are over 24ft, including structures for outdoor advertising, ladder safety systems or PFASs now are mandatory. The rule went into effect November 19, 2018, for new ladders and by 2036 for all ladders.
“A worker’s life can be forever altered or ended in the seconds it takes to fall,” said Jeff Funke, OSHA’s area director in Omaha. “Controlling contractors and subcontractors have a responsibility to protect workers on its construction sites from falls which cause four out of 10 workplace fatalities in the construction industry. More tragic than that is the reality that these falls are preventable.””
Managers also need to ensure their employees know how to evaluate and adjust whether walking-working surfaces will support the loads that will be placed on them.
For rope-descent systems that use anchorages, inspection is mandatory. This will help make sure each anchorage attached to a worker can support at least 5,000lbs in any direction.
Training for Employees
Every single employee who uses personal fall protection and performs high-hazard work must be trained about the dangers of falls and how to properly use fall protection systems.
Historically, employee training always has required guidance from a qualified individual. The latest rule specifically states what roles a “competent person” must be able to verify in an array of situations, including:
- Annual inspections of rope descent systems
- Inspections of knots in a lanyard or vertical lifelines
- Anchorage certifications
In addition, if there are any changes in workplace operations or equipment, or if an employer believes that additional training would be beneficial, employee retraining is essential.
Alignment Between General and Construction Industries
The new walking-working surface regulation provides more consistency between general industry standards and construction industry standards. These consist of the following:
- The ability to choose the fall protection systems that work best for your employees
- The criteria and practice requirements for guardrail systems
- Requirements for scaffolds
- Fall protection plans for unprotected sides and edges when performing roof work
- Requirements for safety net systems
- Requirements for rope-descent systems
While OSHA has made some extensive updates to its guidelines for fall protection, these variations were created with a safety mindset and are intended to help lower fatality and injury rates in workplaces across the nation.