Special thanks to my colleague, Diana Neeves, for her contributions to this post.  Diana is an attorney in our Environmental & Utilities Group.

At the end of last week, OSHA issued its long-awaited final rule on walking-working surfaces and personal fall protection systems for general industry.  The new rule is intended to update the standards to align with general industry practice, consensus standards, and, in many respects, standards for the construction industry.  It provides employers greater flexibility in fall protection by permitting selection from a variety of fall protection measures based on the circumstances.

Guardrails and toeboards are no longer the preferred fall protection measure when workers are working four feet or more above a lower level.  Instead, employers may choose from a variety of fall protection measures, depending upon the particular circumstances and activities, such as:

  • Guardrail system: a barrier, such as a railing, placed along the edge of a walking-working surface, intended to prevent workers from falling.
  • Safety net system: a netting system placed beneath the work area, intended to catch falling workers before they hit the ground or another lower level structure.
  • Personal fall arrest system: a combination of equipment used on one’s person to arrest or stop a fall, such as a body harness, anchorage, and connector. Body belts may not be used as part of a personal fall arrest system.
  • Positioning system: a supportive system of equipment used with a body belt or harness that allows one to work on an elevated vertical surface, such as a window, with both hands free.
  • Travel restraint system: a combination of equipment used on one’s person, intended to prevent a worker from going over an unprotected edge of a walking-working surface.
  • Ladder safety system: a system attached to a fixed ladder, intended to prevent workers from falling, typically comprised of a carrier, safety sleeve, lanyard, connectors, and body harness.

The final rule also consolidates and streamlines the standards for ladders into one section that addresses both general requirements for all ladders and type-specific ladders requirements. In addition, the use of Rope Descent Systems (RDS) is codified for the first time in the general industry.  The rule imposes a 300-foot height limit for the use of RDS and requires building owners to certify in writing that their RDS meets OSHA standards.

The final rule, which becomes effective on January 17, 2017, is expected to prevent 29 fatalities and 5,842 workplace injuries each year.