Update: On December 12, OSHA postponed enforcement of its new fall protection rules to March 15, 2013.
Sense of Security. OSHA next month will start enforcing new fall protection rules to prevent further roofer injuries or fatalities.
After several postponements and “phase-in” periods, OSHA’s 2010 directive on fall protection for residential construction finally goes into effect on December 15. Its new rule represents the latest chapter in the ongoing debate among contractors, insurers, and the government over how best to prevent injuries and fatalities caused by jobsite falls.
On average, 40 construction workers die each year from falls, the industry’s leading cause of death. An OSHA survey of insured employers in 36 states found that their workman’s compensation liability for roofers injured from falls exceeds $100,000.
However, a trade group representing 2,500 roofing contractors contends that the new regulations take away the easiest fall protection that roofers have used on sloped roofs for decades, and could actually lead to other unintended jobsite accidents.
In the past OSHA had allowed employers to use specified alternative methods of fall protection on slopes greater than 4:12, meaning that the incline is 4 inches for every foot of roofing space.
The most commonly used protection on lower-slope roofs, says Tom Shanahan, associate executive director of the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), had been a slide guard, a piece of wood attached horizontally to rafters by a 90-degree bracket that slips under existing shingles, which installers step on for support as they move up and down the incline. On roofs with inclines of 4:12 to 6:12, the slide guard was typically installed at the eave of the roof; and at every eight feet of roof space on roofs with 6:12 to 8:12 slopes.
However, the persistence of jobsite deaths prompted OSHA to introduce tougher safety regulations. The new rule now mandates that all employees working six feet or more above the ground must use “acceptable” fall-protection equipment such as guardrails, safety nets, or personal fall-arrest systems that can include full-body harnesses and deceleration devices. Depending on the job, other forms of fall prevention might also be required, such as warning lines and safety monitor systems for steeper roofs.
Between March 1 and June 30, 2012, OSHA’s Compliance Assistance Specialists conducted more than 800 outreach activities related to residential fall protection, reported the Journal for Architectural Coatings. And from Oct. 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, its On-site Consultation Projects conducted 2,527 on-site visits, 438 presentations, and 925 training sessions related to fall protection in residential construction.
Now it’s up to contractors to meet the conditions of the new law, train their employees, and outfit them with appropriate equipment that, according to one estimate, can cost up to $400 per installer. After December 15, non-compliance employers would be cited and could be fined up to $7,000 per worker. Citations could delay work on the jobsite, too, warns OSHA.
Shanahan says that most contractors will not go to the trouble of putting up guardrails or safety nets, especially if installers are only going to be on the job for a day or two. But if they can’t use slide guards, their only alternative is to use personal fall-arrest equipment tethered to the building. Shanahan acknowledges that tying off “makes sense” on steep-pitch roofs so the installer is secure. But on low-pitch roofs, where installers are walking around, life lines lying on the roof surface might pose trip hazards for the workers.
Roofers that want to continue using slide guards must provide OSHA with written documentation showing that other forms of fall protection would be infeasible or present greater hazards. “That would become a big paperwork burden for a lot of our members,” says Shanahan. He also questions whether tougher regulations will change behaviors of contractors that resist using fall protection methods and, therefore, make their installers more susceptible to injuries and fatalities. “OSHA eliminated the easiest option for them.”
There are, he says, 25 states that subscribe to federal OSHA law. Others, such as California, Oregon, and Kentucky, have their own fall protection statutes that have demonstrated to be as effective as federal rules. Cal OSHA, for example, gives contractors eight compliance options.
In October, Rosemont, Ill.–based NRCA launched a “state specific” fall protection compliance program, which includes a DVD with six hours of content as well as a companion instructors guide, student guide, and student handout. The program costs $250 for NRCA members and $395 for nonmembers.
Shanahan says NRCA is still talking with OSHA “to come to some understanding and get away from this one-size-fits-all approach. We haven’t given up yet.”
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.