No alternative?

OSHA rescinds directive on residential construction fall protection requirements

Citing high numbers of fall-related fatalities in residential construction, OSHA in December rescinded a compliance directive that allowed residential construction workers to use “alternative” fall protection measures.

According to OSHA standard 1926.501(b)(13), residential construction laborers working at least 6 feet above lower levels must be protected by fall protection such as guardrails, safety nets or personal fall arrest systems. However, a compliance directive (STD 03-00-001) that went into effect in 1999 allowed residential construction companies to use specific alternative methods of fall protection. It did not require the employer to have a written, site-specific plan or provide evidence that conventional protections were infeasible or a greater hazard.

That directive was canceled late last year when OSHA announced a new compliance directive in the Dec. 22 Federal Register. Under the new directive (STD 03-11-002), employers wishing to use alternative fall protection measures in residential construction must meet all requirements in 1926.501(b)(13) and 1926.502(k). Additionally, fall protection plans used to comply with those standards must be site-specific and written out.

OSHA said it lacked “persuasive evidence” that the directive allowing alternative fall protection measures was needed.

Reducing the risk

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, OSHA said in a press release that an average of 40 workers are killed every year due to falls from residential roofs. The new directive is an effort to reduce those numbers.

Daniel Paine, a residential construction safety consultant and president of Innovative Safety LLC in Unionville, CT, believes the new directive will have a positive impact on the safety of roofers. “Any change that we can make that makes the job safer and stops catastrophic injury and death is a good thing,” he said.
Although the old directive was issued, in part, because of the financial difficulties small companies would have implementing fall protection systems, Paine said fall protection technology has changed “dramatically,” making complying with the standard much more financially feasible.

“You have all kinds of roof anchors that can be nailed in that are very inexpensive. We’re talking about roof anchors you can put in for under $20,” he said. “Yes, there is an initial cost, but they last for years.”

Further, Paine added that incorporating such safety measures can reduce effective manual rates and workers’ compensation costs, saving companies money in the long run.

Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America in Washington, agrees that the time has come to rescind the directive. “The feasibility argument was pretty much based on, ‘Well, it’s easier and cheaper and quicker to put up slide guards,’” he said. “But it’s not as effective as having fall protection equipment. People are going to be stopped by a guardrail or by a lifeline.” Slide guards, he contends, do not offer the same level of protection.

However, Schneider believes companies may be reluctant to implement the new fall protection guidelines because of cost and time constraints. “Residential contractors are under a lot of pressures, time pressures, to get the job done quicker, faster. So I think anything that seems like it’s going to slow the job down or is going to cost them money [they are going to resist],” Schneider said. “A lot of them are very small companies working on very small profit margins.”

Paine believes resistance is a problem that can be found at every level of an operation. “I believe they are resistant to it because everybody’s resistant to change,” he said. “It goes down to the worker. No one wants to change the way they do things.”

Creating additional hazards?

Tom Shanahan, of the Rosemont, IL-based National Roofing Contractors Association, balked at the notion that disagreement with OSHA’s decision is strictly a matter of money or resistance to change. Although he acknowledged the move may have financial implications for roofing contractors, he said NRCA’s opposition to OSHA’s new directive is related to safety.

“By going to using personal fall arrest systems, we actually may be creating a more dangerous situation for roofers,” Shanahan said.

He pointed out that tying off with personal fall arrest systems is necessary at times – such as working on a steep-grade roof – for many residential re-roofing and repair jobs, but said fall arrest systems can be detrimental to safety. Many roofs – particularly older ones – do not always provide adequate places to tie off, he noted. Further, on re-roofing ?and repair jobs, with debris scattered around the worksite, fall protection may increase tripping hazards. “With shingles sliding down, you’ve got a lot of things that can cause tripping and slipping hazards,” Shanahan said. “When you’re adding lines on the roof for personal fall arrest systems, you’re just increasing all of that.”

NRCA – the majority of whose membership is involved in re-roofing and repair – lobbied OSHA to keep the option of slide guards available for such work.

“We’re not saying it’s appropriate for all. What we’re saying is evaluate the job,” Shanahan said. “Determine the best method for protecting the workers. And whether it’s a personal fall arrest system, a guardrail, a safety net, a slide guard, scaffolding … we want a contractor to be able to have a list of options that he can choose from. And OSHA just eliminated one that’s very, very good in its circumstance.” 

The likelihood of a fall occurring when using slide guards is not great, according to Shanahan. “OSHA itself does not have data indicating that slide guards are not working,” he said. “If you look at all the deaths, the numbers speak for themselves.”

True fall hazards in roofing, he said, exist in cases where no protection whatsoever is being used. “If you look at the deaths that occur from falls from a roof … the issue isn’t whether or not a personal fall arrest system was used or a slide guard was used – the issue is that nothing was used,” he said.

Shanahan also believes OSHA’s decision fails to acknowledge the differences in re-roofing and repair work versus new home construction.

This photo depicts a roof fitted with slide guards, which were previously considered a viable alternative to fall protection for residential roofing work. OSHA's new compliance directive STD 03-11-002 eliminates slide guards as an acceptable option, efffective June 16.

Changing the culture

Although NRCA made its opinion known in a lengthy letter to OSHA, the directive is scheduled to go into effect on June 16, with the use of slide guards in re-roofing projects not accepted as a permissible alternative.

Schneider approves of this decision and disagrees with the assessment that slide guards provide equal protection, or that fall protection creates hazards in re-roofing jobs.

“I think in most cases it would be [safe to use fall protection],” he said. “I think it just requires more planning as to where you’re going to put the anchors and where you’re going to put the shingles. But then all safety requires planning.”

He insisted that the number of residential construction falls that occurred in instances where slide guards were used cannot be determined, but said it is inadequate to say slide guards are better than nothing.

“[Shanahan] is right that the biggest problem is people not using any fall protection, but I don’t think that slide guards are as safe as fall protection,” he said. “And I don’t think that slide guards are any easier to use and to install than an anchor system.”

The nature of residential roofing work – with the jobs being so small and scattered – may create some enforcement challenges for OSHA, Schneider suggested. “It is going to be difficult for them to find these jobs and enforce it,” he said, noting that steps are being taken to raise awareness about the issue. “They’re getting materials out and telling employees, ‘You need to wear fall protection, this is a hazard, you’re at risk for fatality.’ And hopefully they can make a difference.”

What is truly needed, Schneider said, is a culture change in the residential construction industry, where workers and employers alike recognize the need for fall protection on the job. “We have to do a better job convincing people that the risks are real and that these steps are necessary,” he said.

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