Fall Protection in the Construction Industry: An Overview of Subpart M of the OSHA Construction Standards

When it comes to the risks associated with fall hazards, there are compelling reason to surpass any minimum level of training that may be required for employees. This is for good reason – Worker falls account for approximately one-third of all fatalities in the construction industry. Suffice it to say, the stakes are very high – and real. It is critical that employers provide proper fall protection for employees and undertake effective measures to ensure employee compliance. Proper procedure suggests that when employees don’t follow the rules, they need to be disciplined. OSHA frequently cites employers for failing to provide proper fall protection, including training. These citations can be costly, but will likely pale in comparison to the host of additional negative impacts that a workplace injury will bring.

The OSHA Standards

“Subpart M” of the construction standards (29 CFR Part 1926) addresses fall protection. OSHA sections 1926.501 (Duty to have fall protection), 1926.502 (Fall protection systems criteria and practices), and 1926.503 (Training requirements) address, as their titles suggest, situations in which fall protection is required, requirements for the particular systems, and employer training requirements. Below is an overview of these sections. This overview, however, should not be deemed a substitute for reading – and analyzing – the standards line by line. The best source for learning the OSHA standards is, of course, reading the standards themselves.

Duty to have fall protection

29 CFR 1926.501 generally provides that guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems must be used in a variety of situations to protect employees from falling six feet or more to a lower level. Those situations include when employees are working on unprotected sides/edges and leading edges. Similar requirements exist for work being performed in hoist areas. Also, employees on walking/working surfaces must be protected from falling through holes (including skylights) more than 6 feet above lower levels by personal fall arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems erected around the holes. Additional fall protection measures set forth in 1926.501 apply to formwork and reinforcing steel; ramps, runways, and other walkways; excavations; dangerous equipment; overhand bricklaying and related work; roofing work on low-slope roofs; steep roofs; precast concrete erection; residential construction; and wall openings.

In addition, when employees are exposed to falling objects, each employee must wear a hard hat and employers must implement one of the following measures: i) erect toeboards, screens, or guardrail systems to prevent objects from falling; ii) erect a canopy structure and keep potential fall objects far enough from the edge of the higher level so they won’t go over the edge if accidentally displaced; or iii) barricade the area to which objects could fall, prohibit employees from entering the barricaded area, and keep objects that may fall far enough away from the edge of the higher level.

Fall protection systems criteria and practices

29 CFR 1926.502 sets forth technical requirements for the protective devices set forth in section 1926.501. Section 1926.502(b) relates to guardrail systems. For example, 1926.502(b)(1) requires that the top edge height of top rails be 42 inches (plus or minus 3 inches) above the walking/working level. Additional subsections state that midrails or equivalent structural members shall be at least 21 inches high and that guardrail systems shall be capable of withstanding, without failure, a force of at least 200 pounds applied within 2 inches of the top edge, in any outward or downward direction, at any point along the top edge. Section 1926.502(c) applies to safety net systems and section 1926.502(d) applies to personal fall arrest systems. Among the noteworthy sections, 1926.502(d)(21) provides that personal fall arrest systems must be inspected prior to each use for wear, damage, and other deterioration, and defective components shall be removed from service. Also, personal fall arrest systems should never be attached to guardrail systems (1926.502(d)(23)). Employers should read all sections of 1926.502, inasmuch as it sets forth additional standards related to positioning device systems, warning line systems, controlled access zones, safety monitoring systems, covers, protection from falling objects, and fall protection plans.

Training requirements

29 CFR 1926.503 requires that employers provide training for every employee who “might” be exposed to fall hazards. The training program must enable each employee to recognize the hazards of falling and train employees to minimize those hazards. Training must be given by a competent person who is qualified in the following six areas: i) the nature of fall hazards in the work area; ii) the correct procedures for erecting, maintaining, disassembling, and inspecting the fall protection systems to be used; iii) the use and operation of guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems, safety net systems, warning line systems, safety monitoring systems, controlled access zones, and other protection to be used; iv) the role of each employee in the safety monitoring system when the system is used; v) the limitations of the use of mechanical equipment during the performance of roofing work on low-sloped roofs; and vi) the correct procedures for the handling and storage of equipment and materials and the erection of overhead protection.

Employers are required to verify compliance with the training requirements by preparing a written certification record. Retraining must be conducted if an employer has reason to believe that any employee who has already been trained does not have the required understanding.

The Takeaway

Compliance with OSHA standards should be undertaken by employers (and their employees) for the primary goal of ensuring worker safety — so that employees finish their shifts and get home safely. The OSHA fall protection standards set forth in Subpart M are critically important toward ensuring that goal and any employer working in construction should know, understand, and strictly comply with them.

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