ASSE: Are You a 'Self-Interpreter' of OSHA Fall Protection Standards?

As a safety professional, your organization considers you the expert on OSHA law. However, if you're a "self-interpreter" of OSHA standards, you might not be providing your constituents whether they're workers or members of management with the most accurate information.

That's the belief of fall protection expert Richard Epp, PE, CSP, who is an industrial safety engineer with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. Rather than be self-interpreters of OSHA standards, Epp advises safety professionals to stay in compliance with OSHA law by regularly consulting two "overlooked resources": OSHA's standards interpretations and proposed standards.

Epp, speaking at a June 14 session of the American Society of Safety Engineers' Professional Development Conference and Exposition in Seattle, tried to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions regarding fall protection myths that many safety professionals seem to have accepted as fact.

For example, the popular notion that a worker is in compliance with fall protection standards as long as he or she maintains a distance of 6 feet from unprotected edges is nothing more than an urban legend, Epp explained.

When it comes to general industry, "[d]istance alone is not fall protection," Epp said. "Never has been, never will be."

The only thing close to the 6-foot rule in general industry is found in a rule OSHA proposed in 1990 for 29 CFR 1910.28(d), which is part of Subpart D, Walking-Working Surfaces.

According to the proposed rule, employers may establish "designated areas" as an alternative to guardrails and other fall protection measures. A designated area must have a perimeter no less than 6 feet from an unprotected edge, must be on a low-slope roof (10 degrees or less) and must be for temporary work (such as maintenance on rooftop equipment) and must meet several other criteria detailed in the proposed 1910.28(d).

Epp added that the proposed rule is a modified version of the warning line standard (29 CFR 1926.502[f][2]) for construction.

While proposed rulemaking might seem irrelevant when it comes to meeting OSHA requirements, Epp noted that the agency will honor an employer's compliance with a proposed rule. Compliance with a proposed rule in lieu of compliance with an existing rule is considered a "de minimis" violation in the eyes of OSHA, which means an employer will not be cited for it.

"It's a good tool," Epp said of proposed rules. "You should go through those, because there's some good stuff in there."

Interpretation Letters

The first step in determining which OSHA rule applies to your situation is to understand the type of work being performed and whether it fits under general industry or construction because "they have different rules."

While figuring out whether you work in general industry or construction seems like a no-brainer, Epp noted that many safety professionals believe that 29 CFR 1910 (OSHA's general industry standards) and 29 CFR 1926 (OSHA's construction standards) are interchangeable.

This, of course, also is the stuff of urban legend.

"The gap between the two regulations is closing, but there are still differences," according to Epp.

Some of those differences in fall protection are illuminated in a July 23, 1996, interpretation letter OSHA issued in response to questions submitted by Dr. J. Nigel Ellis. An interpretation letter, Epp explained, is OSHA's answer(s) to formally asked questions.

While distance is not considered fall protection in general industry, the 1996 interpretation letter to Ellis regarding fall protection in construction states that "when employees working 50 to 100 feet away from the unprotected edge have been properly trained, then the situation can be considered a 'de minimis' condition." The letter is a bit of a departure from the preamble to 29 CFR 1926 Subpart M Fall Protection for construction which states that there is no safe distance from an unprotected side or edge that would eliminate the need for fall protection measures.

Another interpretation letter issued on May 12, 2000, in response to questions submitted by Barry Cole offers another exception. The use of "non-conforming guardrails 15 or more feet from the edge under certain circumstances" is a suitable substitute for other fall protection measures and constitutes a de minimis violation, according to the letter.

Non-conforming guardrails are similar to the concept of designated areas, Epp pointed out, although there are significant differences such as the 15-foot distance and the requirement of an employer work rule prohibiting work past the line.

Other Myths and Misconceptions

Epp debunked a number of other myths and misconceptions regarding fall protection, and he referenced existing standards, interpretation letters and proposed standards to make his case.

Regarding fall protection in construction, he noted that warning line systems only apply to roofing work on low-slope roofs (refer to 1926.502[f]) and controlled access zones only apply to overhead bricklaying and related work (1926.502[g]).

For both general industry and construction, Epp asserted that fall restraint is neither a myth nor a misconception. "It's a great tool," he said.

Fall restraint which is the use of physical apparatus to prevent a fall is not mentioned in any existing standards. But it is mentioned in the proposed changes to 29 CFR 1910 as well as in two standards interpretation letters dated Nov. 2, 1995.

One letter remarks that "although the standard does not mention them, it is perfectly acceptable to use fall restraint systems to protect employees from fall hazards."

The other letter points out that "we do accept properly utilized fall restraint systems in lieu of fall arrest systems when the restraint system is rigged in such a way that the employee cannot get to the fall hazard. We suggest that, as a minimum, fall restraint systems have the capacity to withstand at least 3,000 pounds of force or twice the maximum expected force that is needed to restrain the person from exposure to the fall hazard."

Make it a Habit

Myths and misconceptions have been circulating since the OSH Act went into effect, and some such as the so-called 6-foot rule have been pervasive, Epp said.

But while most of those myths began as honest mistakes, it behooves safety professionals to make sure they're not perpetuating erroneous interpretations of the standards. In this age of the Internet, it's now easy to do.

"It's pretty simple," Epp said. "A few clicks and you're there."

Epp recommends checking OSHA's interpretation letters on regular basis perhaps once a month to stay up to date. The interpretation letters can be viewed by standard number or by the date they were issued.

Although the proposed rules are a bit tougher to find on the Web, one way to access them is via a docket search on OSHA's Docket Office home page.

"Remember: You're the experts," Epp said. "You're the one people turn to whether it's workers or management for answers. You might not know the answers, but you know where to turn to."

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