OSHA to Rescind Interim Residential Fall Protection Guidelines Shortly, Michaels Says

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The head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Nov. 16 that the agency will soon rescind its interim residential fall protection guidelines, which critics say can allow employers to forego certain fall protection measures even if they are feasible.

“Federal OSHA is moving forward on rescinding exemptions to the fall protection policy for residential construction,” David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in a speech to Washington's Division of Occupational Safety and Health during a state plan safety and health symposium in Tumwater, Wash. “[The Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association] asked for this rescission, and we have the support of [the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health] and the National Association of Home Builders.”

The NAHB as well as ACCSH both recommended in 2008 that the agency replace the guidelines, under which they say employers can elect to use less-expensive alternative fall protection in cases where more comprehensive protection, specified under the construction standard (29 C.F.R. Section 1926, Subpart M), might in fact be feasible. The two groups have said that since OSHA issued the guidelines in 1995.

Conventional fall protection programs consist of three protective systems--guardrails, safety nets, and personal fall arrest systems. Employers are allowed to use alternative fall protection, however, when a conventional program is “infeasible or creates a greater hazard,” the interim guidelines said (39 OSHR 320, 4/23/09).

Kevin Beauregard, chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association, told BNA Nov. 18 that because of technological advances since the guidelines went into effect, conventional fall protection is always feasible.

“What this memo does is actually give an exception, kind of like a blanket exception to the standard,” he said. “We think in this day and age [conventional fall protection] is very feasible.”

Homebuilder, Roofer Concerns Differ.

The National Association of Home Builders has pointed to a number of gaps within the guidelines, including the absence of a definition for residential construction, which make the requirements unclear.

“If you're building a cookie-cutter house, do you need new [fall protection] plans every time?” Rob Matuga, the association's assistant vice president for labor, safety, and health policy, asked. “I think OSHA is just looking at the myriad of issues that have been brought up over a number of years.”

The amount of time OSHA has spent on the issue could be the result of the need for industry guidance for any new compliance directive, as well as technical issues, such as anchoring personal fall arrest systems to wood, Matuga told BNA.

“There's no really easy, clear-cut answers for any of these [issues],” he said. “So I think OSHA is just taking its time so it gets the right guidance for this industry.”

Tom Shanahan, associate executive director of risk management for the National Roofing Contractors Association, said that because of the short-duration of most re-roofing jobs, fall protection strategies other than conventional methods, such as slide guards, are also necessary for lower sloped roofs.

Despite a lack of data indicating slide guards do not work, Shanahan added that OSHA has recently indicated it would remove the exemption that allows contractors to use them.

“What we're saying is, 'Don't throw the baby out with the bath-water,' ” he told BNA Nov. 19. “This is really about safety and what makes the most sense. By taking an option off the table, I really don't understand how that makes workers safer.”

By Greg Hellman