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Fall protection for residential construction

July 1, 2009

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Advisory committee wants OSHA to rescind interim standard

By Marvin V. Greene, associate editor

In September 2008, the residential fall protection workgroup of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health recommended the agency rescind the interim fall protection standard for residential construction. Fall protection rules for residential construction have been the subject of politically charged discussions between OSHA, Con­gress and the construction industry. OSHA issued a standard for fall protection in construction in August 1994, but the residential construction sector pushed for less restrictive requirements, prompting publication of the interim standard in December 1995.

The interim standard applies to certain work activities, including roofing. It says a residential construction employer can deem certain types of conventional fall protection systems – primarily guardrails, safety nets and personal fall arrest systems – “infeasible.” Current OSHA compliance policy distinguishes residential construction from the greater construction industry based on the types of materials and methods used to build structures. If those methods meet the test for “residential construction,” builders can follow the less stringent requirements.

For instance, roofers who meet the test for residential construction can employ alternative fall protection procedures based on attributes such as roof slope and fall distance. Alternatives may include the use of slide guards or workers who act as safety monitors to alert other workers of potential hazards.

However, Michael McCann, director of safety research for the Center for Con­struction Research and Training in Silver Spring, MD, said many safety professionals do not put much stock in alternatives. Citing anecdotal observations, McCann said safety monitors – especially those on small crews – often receive little training and typically perform other tasks.

“It’s a real problem,” McCann said. “They are not real safety rules, but management procedures that just aren’t as real safe. There have been concerns about that for a long time. Roofing is one of the big areas in construction where there are a lot of falls.”

Risk knowledge

Vicki Kaskutas, a researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has studied the training methods of mainly younger, apprentice construction work­ers. Kaskutas said her research showed many workers simply are not following industry safety standards.

“Some of it is knowledge. They don’t know about [the standards]. Some of it is that they don’t perceive the tasks have a risk of falling, or the risk of falling is low,” Kaskutas said.

Additionally, male workers in their 20s who participate in sports or other physical activities tend to downplay the dangers of residential construction work, Kaskutas said. “They are like, ‘Hey, I am just climbing ladders and walking around on a roof, and it’s not that big a deal.’ They don’t necessarily respect the risks associated with what they do. You build a house in three or four weeks, so you get kind of used to it,” she said.

Kaskutas said that as residential construction workers become more experienced, they begin to pay more attention to the risks. In its Census of Fatal Occu­pational Injuries for 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics repor­ted that 35 percent of all construction fatalities resulted from falls; of those, 43 percent occurred in residential construction. OSHA estimates that more than half of the 1.6 million workers employed in the construction industry work in residential construction.

McCann added that safety advocates and labor activists believe residential construction firms should be required to follow the same fall protection rules as the rest of the construction industry, which would happen if the interim standard is rescinded.

However, residential construction industry groups argue that stricter requirements would increase the cost of building homes and make home ownership less affordable. The National Association of Home Builders noted that the majority of residential construction companies are small family businesses that build fewer than 25 homes a year.

In 2008, Washington-based NAHB released a report that analyzed residential construction fatalities for 2003-2006. The report stated the industry’s fatality rate over that period was 8.35 per 100,000 full-time employees, compared with 11.59 for the whole construction industry. More than three-quarters of fatalities occurred in businesses with 10 or fewer employees, mostly among construction laborers, carpenters, roofers and first-line supervisors, according to the report.

What’s next?

Safety advocates contend that fall protection technology has changed drastically since the interim standard was adopted, and that a new approach to residential construction safety is necessary.

At an April 16 meeting in Washington, Richard Fairfax, OSHA’s acting director of construction and director of the Directorate of Enforcement Programs, told the residential fall protection workgroup of OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Con­struction Safety and Health that the group’s recommendation to rescind the interim standard is under review. He indicated a decision likely would not be made until a permanent leader of OSHA had been selected, but said acting OSHA administrator Jordan Barab had been advised on the issue.

“It’s on our radar screen,” Fairfax told the panel. “We did take the step … to start conversations with [Barab] about it and advise him that we need to bring it up to the assistant secretary … and that this is a recommendation of ACCSH.”

In the event that OSHA follows ACCSH’s recommendations to rescind the interim standard, NAHB drafted and presented to the workgroup guidelines it hopes will be recommended to OSHA to assist home builders in complying with the more stringent rules.

At the meeting, OSHA expressed concern that NAHB’s guidelines may still account for too many instances where fall protection is considered infeasible. Representatives from the agency said they would like the workgroup to find additional ways to make fall protection feasible, adding that they would like to narrow the scope to a limited number of areas where there is known infeasibility.

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