Safety Railing and Guardrail Requirements

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provided new fall protection standards back in Fall 2016.  These updates became effective January 2017 and many of the updates align general industry regulations for guardrails, ladders, and stairways with construction standards.  Organizations continue to work toward understanding and implementing the required changes. Although the updated standards have been in place for over two years, many employers remain confused or have questions about the changes.  Areas of confusion often deal with fall protection railing requirements, OSHA handrail requirements, and railing safety.

Fall Protection Railing Requirements 

There are many places in a facility or on a rooftop that pose a hazard for workplace injuries and fatalities.  Many rooftops include elevated pipes, ducts, HVAC equipment. Technicians need to access these structures from an elevated position and may need safety railings.  A roof handrail can also provide a physical barrier and help prevent falls from a roof edge.

A safety handrail helps to provide stability for a handhold whether on a walkway, steps, or platform.  Guardrails are a system of railings to prevent workers from falling off a landing, platform, or walkway. Common applications include standing seam or metal roof installations and the popular Accufit system. Including guardrails and safety rail systems is an important consideration in fall prevention systems.  Further, complying with OSHA’s safety railing and guardrail requirements can reduce falls and citations. 

Are you curious about OSHA handrail requirements or what OSHA railing height is appropriate for your facility?  First of all, here are some applicable requirements for guardrails and safety railings included in OSHA’s Walking-Working Surfaces standard for general industry,  29 CFR 1910.29:

OSHA 1910.29(b)(1):

To meet OSHA’s railing height requirements, the top rail needs to be 42 inches plus or minus 3 inches above the walking-working surface.

OSHA 1910.29(b)(2)(i-iv):

If the vertical opening in the rail is more than 19 inches, then there must be a midrail.  Install the midrail halfway between the top rail and the walking surface. The distance between intermediate vertical members (such as balusters) is no more than 19 inches.  Openings are no more than 19 inches wide for other intermediate members (such as additional midrails and architectural panels).

OSHA 1910.29(b)(3),(5):

Deals with the strength of the railing.  Guardrails are to withstand a force of at least 200 pounds applied in a downward or outward direction within 2 inches of the top edge at any point along the top rail.  Midrails and intermediate members are to withstand a force of at least 150 pounds applied in any downward or outward direction. 

OSHA 1910.29(f)(1)(i):

Handrails must be between 30 and 38 inches from the leading edge of the stair to the top of the rail.

OSHA 1910.29(f)(1)(ii)(A-B):

Stair rails installed before January 17, 2017 are to be at least 30 inches from the leading edge of the stair tread to the top surface of the top rail.  Stair rails installed on or after January 17, 2017 are to be at least 42 inches.

OSHA 1910.29(f)(1)(iii)(A):

A stair rail may serve as a handrail only when the top surface of the top rail is between 36 and 38 inches from the leading edge of the stair.

Also, OSHA standard 29 CFR 1910.28 includes information that employers need to ensure that fall protection is provided when employees are exposed to a fall of 4 feet or more to a lower level. 

When is a Guardrail Required? 

As you can see, there are various OSHA guardrail provisions detailing when guardrails and railings should be used and how they should be constructed. And yet there’s more provisions for railing safety. 

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.23 includes requirements for ladders, when handrails are required on platforms and how high safety railings must be.  Handrails are required when there is a top step height of 4 feet or more and a railing needs to be 29.5 inches for stands with a top height of 4 feet or more, 36 inches for stands with a top step of 10 feet or more. 

There’s also confusion about the need for gates around ladders.  There’s a misconception that a safety chain can be used to protect a ladder entrance.  According to OSHA, a gate is required at the top of all ladders. In fact, OSHA requires a guardrail system and toeboards on all exposed sides (except at the entrance) of a ladderway floor hole or ladderway platform hole (29 CFR 1910.28(b)(3)(iv)).   

To meet OSHA requirements in the construction industry, if workers are six feet or more above a lower level, there must be protection from falling by the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems (29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1)).  There are various pros and cons to guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems, but in many cases, a guardrail system may be the most appropriate system for fall protection. 

OSHA guardrail requirements also include that safety railing systems be required even when occasional or temporary work is performed on the roof, whether for repair or for maintenance.  In addition, a roof handrail must be able to withstand 200 pounds of force without falling. 

Other Uses of Safety Railings

Safety railings can also be used commercially to protect workers and pedestrians from falls off steps, walkways, platforms or other raised areas.  These guardrails provide railing safety for various applications including protection over culverts, access stairs and ramps, service platforms and loading bays, mezzanines, and pedestrian pathways.  In addition to creating a barrier to prevent falls off a raised area, safety railings also provide a handhold when ascending or descending. 

Why Deal with Railing Safety?

Bottom line, railings provide a needed barrier and help protect people from falls.  Yes, it may seem like there are so many rules (OSHA and more) to understand and follow, but the whole point of these rules is workplace safety.  It is important to keep workers safe, to prevent falls, and to maintain a culture of safety. The number of workplace fatal falls is growing. In fact, in 2017 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that fatal falls reached their highest levels, 887 worker’s deaths. 

Still Have Questions? 

There are many OSHA rules, requirements, and exceptions that haven’t been included in this post.  And after reading the information provided here, perhaps you have questions about OSHA railing height requirements for your specific needs.  Or maybe you’re still wondering when is a guardrail required in my situation, in my facility? Contact us for help! Whether you are looking for a guardrail, industrial and removable safety railing, handrail, stair rail, or a customized safety system, every product we manufacture meets or exceeds OSHA requirements.  For more information about our products, reach out to the EDGE Fall Protection team. Reach us at at 844-314-1374

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