Managing Roof Fall Hazards In General Industry

Given the state of OSHA rulemaking, the author advocates a best practices approach to protect employees from falling from industrial roofs.

OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.23(c)(1) is unambiguous and clearly states that "every open-sided floor or platform 4 feet or more above adjacent floor or ground level shall be guarded by a standard railing on all open sides."

With that in mind, look at the skyline of any industrial park in America. What do you see? Flat roofs, acres and acres of flat roofs. Now look more closing at those roofs. Notice that most of them bristle with HVAC equipment, lighting fixtures, security cameras, microwave dishes and two-way radio antennas. Sooner or later, someone has to go up on the roof to work on that stuff. When they do, they are exposed to a fall hazard greater than 4 feet.

It would appear that the only means of protecting employees from industrial roof fall hazards would the installation of guardrails. However, in a letter of interpretation dated May 13, 1980, James J. Concannon, then director of OSHA's Office of Variance Determinations, advised Paul M. Osborne, general operations manager of Eller Outdoor Advertising in Denver, that the agency would accept the use of personal fall arrest systems in lieu of guardrails.

This position was reaffirmed in letters of interpretation that OSHA sent to Lawrence R. Stafford, PE, in 1983 and 1987 and in Standards Directive 1-1.13, Fall Protection in General Industry 29 CFR 1910.23(c)(1) and 29 CFR 1910.132(a), that was issued by then Assistant Secretary of Labor Thorne Auchter in 1984.

So that's it. If you go up on a flat roof, you have two options: Install guardrails or use a personal fall arrest system.

Construction vs. General Industry Standards

OSHA's general industry fall protection standards date to 1972 and are based on a 1967 American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard titled "Safety Requirements for Floor and Wall Openings, Railings and Toeboards." This standard has been revised numerous times by ANSI over the last 32 years.

OSHA's construction fall protection standard, which was revised in 1989, addresses a host of innovative fall protection methods, including personal fall arrest systems, controlled access zones, warning line systems and safety monitoring systems. Unfortunately, these standards apply only to construction, not general industry. This results in a confusing compliance conundrum when employees go up on roofs because the tasks they perform could be covered by construction and general industry standards. For example, installing a new HVAC system is covered by OSHA construction standards in 29 CFR 1926. Replacing a dirty filter in an existing air handler, however, is maintenance covered by the general industry standards in 29 CFR 1910.

To a large extent, problems associated with general industry roof hazards are resolved by a revision to the walking-working surfaces regulations that OSHA proposed in April 1990. Paragraph 29 CFR 1910.28(d) of the proposed rule sets forth requirements for establishing "designated areas" for employees who are not working at the edge of a roof.

A designated area, as defined in 1910.21(b), is a section of a walking or working surface around which a perimeter line has been erected so that employees within the area would be warned that they are approaching a fall hazard.

Although the 10-year-old proposal still has not been adopted by OSHA, it provides practical, objective guidance for managing general industry roof fall hazards. Moreover, employers who follow it are at little risk of being cited and fined by OSHA because section III.C.2.g.2 of OSHA's Field Instruction Reference Manual explains that a de minimus violation exists when an employer complies with a proposed standard rather than with the standard in effect at the time of the inspection.

Best Practices Approach

I have observed situations where people have spent more time arguing over which standard applied than it would have taken to do the job. Given the nature of the work and the uncertain frequency of exposure, it is often more practical to take a best practices approach rather than trying to determine what specific OSHA standards apply in a given situation. After all, the goal is to protect employees from falling, not to make a legal determination as to which regulations should be followed.

At a minimum, four elements should serve as a foundation for an industrial roof fall protection program:

  • Limiting access to the roof through a roof permit system;
  • Ensuring that employees who go up on the roof can recognize, evaluate and control fall hazards;
  • Ensuring that a hazard analysis is performed prior to each roof entry; and
  • Monitoring the process and making continuous improvements as experience dictates.

Limiting Roof Access

A roof permit system is a process that restricts access to the roof to authorized employees. As part of this system, roof access hatches are locked, and only those employees who have been trained to recognize, evaluate and control fall hazards are allowed access to the roof.

Before entering the roof, employees are required to complete a roof access permit that demonstrates that they have conducted a hazard assessment and have identified a fall protection method consistent with the nature of the work they will be doing. The permit is approved by a person qualified to determine the adequacy of the fall protection methodology.

Employee Training

Employees who may be exposed to roof fall hazards must be trained to recognize those hazards and in the procedures they can use to minimize their exposure. This training should address at least the following areas:

  • The general nature of roof fall hazards that may be encountered;
  • Requirements of fall protection standards related to the work;
  • Correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling, inspecting and using any fall protection systems used; and
  • The method for reporting problems or for obtaining guidance with respect to fall protection issues.

The training should be documented by a written record that contains the name or other identity of the employee trained, the date the training was provided, and the signature of the person who conducted the training or the signature of the employer.

Retraining should be provided whenever there is an indication that an employee who has been trained no longer possesses the requisite understanding and skills or when there are changes in workplace conditions or in the type of fall protection systems used that render previous training obsolete.

Job Hazard Analysis

Each person authorized to perform work on the roof should mentally conduct a hazard analysis that systematically reviews elements of the job and identifies a fall protection method that is consistent with the tasks to be performed.

In some cases, the work may be such that guardrails appear to be the most appropriate option. In other cases, employees installing guardrails may be exposed to a greater hazard for a longer period of time than if a personal fall arrest system were used.

Personal fall arrest systems my use rope grabs or retracting life lines, each of which offers advantages and disadvantages. Because rope grabs are substantially lighter than retracting life lines, they are generally easier to lift, transport and maneuver. On the other hand, the user must adjust the slack tension manually, where a retracting life line adjusts automatically. Consequently, a rope grab may be appropriate for a short-duration job that involves little movement, while a retracting life line may be a better choice for a long-duration job that requires a high degree of movement.

In situations where retracting life lines may be used regularly and frequently, it may be practical to store the equipment in a weather-resistant cabinet. That way, the equipment would be readily available without the burdensome task of having to haul it up to the roof each time it is needed. The savings in time and effort would most likely offset the cost of the additional equipment.

Specific Fall Protection Methods

Roof access hatches. Roof access hatches pose openings that must be protected. The simplest approach to controlling this hazard is to simply close the hatch cover once on the roof. Precautions must be taken, however, to ensure that the cover will not latch in a way that prohibits exit. If the hatch must be kept open -- for example, to pass up tools and materials -- the opening must be protected with a guardrail, or employees must use personal fall arrest equipment during the time they are exposed.

Unprotected edges. If work such as inspection, maintenance and repair is performed at an unprotected edge, employees must be protected by a conventional fall protection method such as guardrails, safety nets and personal fall arrest systems. In some situations, it may be possible to perform the work from the ground using ladders or articulated aerial lifts. Work performed on roof locations other than at unprotected edges might be most practically addressed by a designated area.

Skylights. Skylights may be protected by covers or guardrails. Alternatively, employees working around skylights may be protected with personal fall arrest systems. As noted previously, the best method of protection depends on the nature of the work activities. For example, when employees are exposed because of work that they are performing on the roof, the skylight could be protected by a guardrail system or a cover. If work such as removal, replacement or reglazing is being done on the skylight itself, a personal fall arrest system may be more appropriate. Safety netting or a catch platform could also be installed under the opening to prevent employees from falling to the ground below.

Skylight protection is addressed in 29 CFR 1910.23(a)(4), which stipulates that skylights be guarded by a screen or by a fixed standard railing. Skylight screens must be capable of withstanding a load of at least 200 pounds applied perpendicularly at any one area on the screen. They must also be constructed and mounted so they will not deflect downward sufficiently to break the glass below them under ordinary loads or impacts.

Skylight protection is also discussed by proposed paragraph 29 CFR 1910.27 (b)(3). The proposed rule is more performance-based, however, and stipulates that employees be informed of hazards that skylights pose and that skylights be protected by guardrails or by a cover strong enough to support the intended load.

Contractor Activities

In addition to protecting their employees, employers have a duty with respect to contractors. This duty consists of monitoring contractors' activities and bringing any uncontrolled hazards to their attention. It is then up to contractors to ensure that the hazards are addressed.

Some employers have learned by experience that it is a mistake to assume that, just because contractors are involved in a business that involves working at heights, they are knowledgeable concerning OSHA fall protection requirements. Consequently, many progressive employers have a policy for prequalifying bidders and limiting work only to those contractors who have demonstrated they are able to do the job without risking the lives of their workers.

The frequency and duration of monitoring visits is a matter of professional judgment based on such factors as the nature of the work and previous experience with the contractor. More frequent monitoring visits will be required in the case of contractors with whom an employer has little to no experience than for those who consistently demonstrate a high degree of ongoing compliance with fall protection requirements. Lastly, the person making monitoring visits must possess sufficient knowledge and skill to determine if the contractor's performance is satisfactory.


Fall hazards can be managed by a best practices approach that includes a roof permit system, employee training and a hazard analysis that identifies the most appropriate type of fall protection. Specific fall hazards can be addressed by covers, guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems and designated work areas.

Contractor safety can be addressed by a prequalification process that allows only contractors with demonstrated skills to bid on projects and conducting monitoring visits of the work to verify appropriate contractor performance.

Proposed OSHA Standard 29 CFR 1910.28(d) Designated Area

(d) Designated areas

(1) General requirements for use. Employers may establish designated areas that comply with provisions of this paragraph as an alternative to installing guardrails, where employers demonstrate that employees within the designated areas are not exposed to fall hazards. In addition, the following conditions and requirements must be met to use designated areas in lieu of other fall protection measures:

(a) The work must be of a temporary nature, such as maintenance on roof-top equipment.

(b) Designated areas shall be established only on surfaces that have a slope from horizontal of 10 degrees or less.

(c) The designated area shall consist of an area surrounded by a rope, wire or chain and supporting stanchions erected in accordance with criteria in paragraphs (d)(2) through (d)(5) of this section.

(2) Strength criteria. (i) After being erected with the line (such as rope, wire or chain) attached, stanchions shall be capable of resisting, without tipping over, a force of at least 16 pounds (71 N) applied horizontally against the stanchion. The force shall be applied 30 inches (76 centimeters) above the work surface and perpendicular to the designated area perimeter, and in the direction of the unprotected side or edge;

(ii) The line shall have a minimum breaking or tensile strength of 500 pounds (2.2 kN) and, after being attached to the stanchions, shall be capable of supporting, without breaking, the load applied to the stanchions as prescribed in paragraph (d)(2)(i) of this section; and

(iii) The line shall be attached at each stanchion in such a way that pulling on one section of the line between stanchions will not result in slack being taken up in adjacent sections before the stanchion tips over.

(3) Height criteria. The line shall be installed in such a manner that its lowest point, including sag, is no less than 34 inches (86 cm) nor more than 39 inches (1 meter) from the work surface.

(4) Visibility criteria. The line forming the designated area shall be clearly visible from any unobstructed location within the designated area up to 25 feet (7.6 m) away, or at the maximum distance a worker may be positioned away from the line, whichever is less.

(5) Location criteria. (i) Stanchions shall be erected as close to the work area as permitted by the task.

(ii) When mechanical equipment is being used, the line shall be erected not less than 6 feet (1.8. m) from the unprotected side or edge that is parallel to the direction of mechanical equipment operation and not less than 10 feet (3.1 m) from the unprotected side or edge that is perpendicular to the direction of mechanical equipment operation.

(iv) Access to the designated area shall be by a clear path, formed by two lines, attached to stanchions that meet the strength, height and visibility requirements of this paragraph.

John F. Rekus, PE, CIH, CSP, is an independent safety consultant and author of the Complete Confined Spaces Handbook. With almost 30 years of OSHA regulatory experience, he specializes in conducting OSHA compliance surveys and providing safety education seminars for workers and managers. He resides near Baltimore and may be reached at (410) 583-7954, or you can visit his Web site at

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