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OSHA Compliance: Confusion About Fall Standards

For years the Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA) regulations have been subject to interpretation, misinterpretation, and confusion.  Figuring out which OSHA fall protection standard to use to protect workers from falls from the rooftop can be particularly confusing.  Adding to the confusion are new OSHA fall protection standards which went into effect in January 2017.  A recent online search of OSHA’s interpretations using fall protection alone in the search field yields 1552 results.  This demonstrates that there is indeed confusion.  Clearing up confusion and being compliant with OSHA can help prevent serious workplace injuries, falls, and death.  This post examines three areas of confusion in relation to protection from falls on the rooftop.

OSHA Fall Protection Standard 1926 and 1910 Confusion

There’s a common misconception that OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910 and 29 CFR 1926 standards are interchangeable.  Although these OSHA fall protection standards are similar and have some overlap, they are not interchangeable. There are 1910 standard regulations that are not included in 1926 standards, and there are 1926 standards that are not in 1910 standard regulations.  Keep in mind that OSHA’s 29 CFR 1910 deals with general industry safety regulations which include operations as well as maintenance and apply to most work sites, while 29 CFR 1926 standards govern the construction industry, including roofing.

Because both OSHA fall protection standards can occasionally apply to the same work site at various times, it can be challenging to determine which fall safety regulations to follow for OSHA compliance. When it comes right down to it, companies are to properly apply the appropriate standard to fit the task being performed.  If there’s new construction, it’s appropriate to use construction (1926) standards.  Routine maintenance and small-scale tasks such as equipment repairs generally fall under general industry (1910) standards.  If there are major repairs or renovations, these are likely to be considered construction and fall under construction (1926) standards.

But what about renovations? There can be confusion about when to apply OSHA construction (1926) or general industry (1910) standards.  Construction standards still apply as OSHA defines construction work as “work for construction, alteration, and/or repair, including painting and decorating.” Section 1910.12(a) further provides that OSHA’s construction industry standards apply “to every employment and place of employment of every employee engaged in construction work.”

For systems to protect workers from falls, one major difference between applying OSHA’s general industry or construction standards is in the elevation height of the leading edge where OSHA requires protection.  This leads us to the next confusion.

OSHA Fall Protection Height Requirement Confusion

Some people think that there’s a 6-foot rule where keeping at least 6 feet of clearance from an unprotected edge is sufficient for protection from falls.  This is not true.  OSHA requires fall protection at elevations of 4 feet for general industry and elevations at 6 feet for the construction industry.  Further, regardless of the fall distance, protection from falls needs to be provided when working over dangerous equipment and machinery.

Specifically for roofing work on low-slope roofs, OSHA’s 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(10) states “each employee engaged in roofing activities on low-slope roofs, with unprotected sides and edges 6 feet (1.8 m) or more above lower levels shall be protected from falling by guardrail systems, safety net systems, personal fall arrest systems, or a combination of warning line system and guardrail system, warning line system and safety net system, or warning line system and personal fall arrest system, or warning line system and safety monitoring system.”

See this post for detailed OSHA guardrail height requirements.

OSHA Fall Protection Standard 1910

Regarding roof protection from falls for work on low-slope roofs, OSHA has general industry (1910) regulations based on various distances:

  • Work done less than 6 feet from the roof edge:
    29 CFR 1910.28(b)(13)(i) requires that “each employee is protected from falling by a guardrail system, safety net system, travel restraint system, or personal fall arrest system.”
  • Work done is at least 6 feet but less than 15 feet:
    29 CFR1910.28(b)(13)(ii) requires that “each employee is protected from falling by using a guardrail system, safety net system, travel restraint system, or personal fall arrest system. The employer may use a designated area when performing work that is both infrequent and temporary.”
  • Work done 15 feet or more from the roof edge:
    29 CFR 1910.28(b)(13)(iii)(A) requires protection from falls “by a guardrail system, safety net system, travel restraint system, or personal fall arrest system or designated area. The employer is not required to provide any fall protection, provided the work is both infrequent and temporary; and”
    29 CFR 1910.28(b)(13)(iii)(B) prohibit “employees from going within 15 feet (4.6 m) of the roof edge without using fall protection in accordance with paragraphs (b)(13)(i) and (ii) of this section.”

Customers are always welcome to discuss the best OSHA-approved solutions for their roof setup. We can advise on flat roof railings, metal roof fall protection, and more.

There’s one more confusion in this post and that confusion deals with OSHA’s construction exemption while on the rooftop.

OSHA Fall Protection Standard and Construction Exemption Confusion

Another rooftop fall hazard and OSHA fall protection standard confusion deals with inspections, investigations, or assessments on the rooftop.  Suppose a contractor or employee needs to inspect a roof for potential repair work or perhaps an inspection needs to be done for maintenance on an HVAC unit.  Is protection from falls required for such inspections?  Do general industry standards (1910) or construction (1926) standards apply?  Does the length of time needed to perform a roofing inspection have any bearing on whether protection from falls is required?

A fall protection exemption is found in 29 CFR 1926.500(a)(1):  “The provisions of this subpart do not apply when employees are making an inspection, investigation or assessment of workplace conditions prior to the actual start of construction work or after all construction work has been completed.”  Consequently, the contractor or employee who inspects a roof for potential repair work is making an assessment prior to roof work being done and roof work falls under OSHA’s construction (1926) standards, so no fall protection is required.

Notice that this exception specifically states construction work, and as such, it does not apply to activities covered in the general industry (1910) standards.  Because inspections for maintenance activities, such as maintenance work on an HVAC unit, fall under OSHA’s general industry (1910) standards, OSHA’s construction (1926) standards are not applicable.  Consequently, protection from falls is required.

All fine and good, but what about the length of time needed to complete a roofing inspection?  Let’s consider what OSHA says in a letter of interpretation (letter #200091112-9340):

“OSHA has set this exception because employees engaged inspecting, investigating, and assessing workplace conditions before actual work begins or after work has been completed are exposed to fall hazards for very short durations, if at all, since they most likely would be able to accomplish their work without going near the danger zone…[R]equiring the installation of fall protection systems under such circumstances would expose the employee who installs those systems to falling hazards for a longer time than the person performing an inspection or similar work.”

But, does OSHA’s 29 CFR 1926.500(a)(1) apply prior to construction when there’s a roof inspection, investigation, or assessment procedure that involves exposure to dangerous conditions for an extended time?  Here’s what OSHA says in this same letter of interpretation:

“…the fall protection exemption anticipates that inspectors likely would be able to accomplish their work without going near the danger zone.  In the situation you describe, inspectors were exposed to fall hazards for up to three hours when kneeling within inches of a danger zone with a 40-foot drop.  Therefore, the nature of the work was not consistent with the intent of the exemption.  Scenarios that keep employees in close proximity to a fall hazard would not fall under the exemption allowed by §1926.500(a)(1). “ (Emphasis added.)  This means that entering an area that is unsafe for a worker without protection from falls is also unsafe for an inspector.  This interpretation makes it clear, arguing against providing an exemption for inspection, investigation, or assessment in an area that would put the person doing the inspection at risk of a fall.

Concluding Thoughts

We’ve examined three areas of OSHA fall protection standard confusion in relation to the rooftop.  There are benefits to OSHA compliance for workplace health, safety, and protection from falls.  Compliance by utilizing a rooftop safety railing and other approved equipment makes work safer and can also save lives.

There are a range of solutions for protection from falls that allow for safely working at heights, including customizable safety railing solutions to prevent falls from a rooftop.  See our site for a variety of protection from fall options such as non-penetrating guardrails, permanent rail solutions, ladders, and enduraline warning lines.

Give us a call to discuss your fall safety concerns or for more information on hiring us for turnkey inspection and installation of your equipment.

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