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OSHA Tightens Its Fall Protection Rules

The new directive states that all residential construction industry employers must protect their workers who are engaged in work at six feet or more above lower levels by conventional fall protection systems or by other fall protection measures.

November 17, 2011
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In response to the high number of deaths related to falls in residential construction, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it is requiring employers operating in the residential construction industry to use the same methods of fall protection that historically have been used in the commercial construction industry.

While these safety methods—including guardrail systems, safety net systems or personal fall arrest systems—are likely to add costs to residential construction, experts say the investment will pay off for contractors through lower workers' compensation insurance premiums and prevention of a job shutdown or delay should a fatality occur.

Residential falls account for roughly 29 percent of all fall fatalities in the overall construction industry, according to OSHA, and falls from roofs accounted for nearly 35 percent of those. In fact, falls in residential construction accounted for more deaths than any other of the four hazards OSHA has identified as the leading causes of fatalities in the construction industry, including "struck-by" hazards, electrocutions and "caught in-between" hazards.

"No worker should have to pay with their life trying to make a living. Our hope is that we can work together to prevent falls and save lives," said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, in a narrative accompanying a presentation the agency has made available on its website.

The new directive, which took effect June 16, states that all residential construction industry employers must protect their workers who are engaged in work at six feet or more above lower levels by conventional fall protection systems or by other fall protection measures allowed under the OSHA directive, which has been in place for commercial construction since 1926 (see "New Safety Standards").

"Gone are the special alternative procedures allowed under the old directive for certain residential construction activities," Michaels said.

However, employers in residential construction still can use other fall protection measures, such as positioning safety monitors on roofs, if they can demonstrate that it would not be feasible to comply with the new directive or if it would create a greater hazard, he said.

But any alternative fall protection plan must be written and site-specific and prepared by a qualified safety professional, he said. Moreover, the OSHA directive requires that the fall protection plan be posted at the job site and that all workers exposed to fall hazards be trained to recognize potential fall hazards and in the procedures they must follow to minimize those hazards.

The new OSHA directive applies in all states except those that have their own occupational safety programs, such as California. However, any state fall protection standard must be at least as effective as the federal standard, according to OSHA.

Walter Lee, vice president and manager of loss control services for the Southern California region at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Los Angeles, attributed the surge in residential fall deaths that triggered OSHA's decision to implement the new directive to corners being cut in safety during the housing boom.

"When the housing boom was going on, a lot of residential construction workers were paid piece rates—by the square footage or by how fast they worked. ... They're not incentivized by wearing hard hats. They actually removed the guards on Skilsaws so they can work faster. Safety and preplanning takes time and money," he said.

As a result, "injuries skyrocketed. That's the primary reason OSHA pushed through these regulations," Lee said.

Though many of Lockton's clients already put the new fall protection measures in place prior to the OSHA directive being issued, Lee said the added cost has made it more difficult for them to compete with contractors that have not put those measures in place.

"But at the same time, a company with a safe work record is paying less for work comp insurance. They gain a competitive advantage on insurance costs, so it does pay in the long run," he said.

Ariel Jenkins, senior risk control manager at Safety National based in St. Louis, said he anticipates there will be some resistance to adhering to the new directive among residential construction industry employers because of the added cost during the economic downturn.

While the cost of a simple roof anchor only amounts to about $200 per worker, other systems like under-eave guardrails are more expensive, costing "in the thousands," he said.

However, Jenkins said he expects the directive ultimately will result in savings for contractors over the long haul, both through reduced workers' compensation insurance premiums and in less downtime should an accident occur that would cause a temporary shutdown at a building site for an OSHA investigation.

"Initially, there's going to be resistance to it purely because they've done it a certain way for so many years and have taken calculated risks that no one would fall. The sentiment out there is OSHA and the federal government are overstepping their bounds," he said. "I have seen these accidents over the years. They're preventable."

The cost of an OSHA fine when an accident occurs as a result of failing to adhere to the new standard can be particularly detrimental to small and midsize residential contractors, according to Kevin Barry, vice president at Marsh Risk Consulting in Philadelphia.

"There are several levels of violations. You could have a $40,000 fine" in situations where a contractor was aware of the hazard but "blatantly disregarded the issue and put someone's life at risk," he said.

Ted Christensen, construction industry specialist at Liberty Mutual Group Inc. in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, estimated it will cost residential contractors between $300 and $400 to outfit each worker with the appropriate fall protection equipment.

"If you look at that vsersus what a fall injury costs, it's a no-brainer," he said.

Bob Kohnke, owner of First Link Safety Inc. in Boise, Idaho, and author of the OSHA Partnership Program for Construction, said the residential construction industry slowdown may make it somewhat easier for contractors to comply with the new OSHA standard because it will allow more time for implementation and training.

"Training is important. We find if people are tied off at a height where they're not protected, that if they fall, their lanyard is not going to prevent them from hitting the ground," he said.

Moreover, "equipment suppliers are now providing much better fall protection equipment than ever before. So this takes away the excuse the industry had for not providing fall protection," Kohnke said.

Part of the reason OSHA had given more leniency to residential construction was because, until recently, "there wasn't a lot of fall protection technology available," said Scott Staffon, a senior vice president and safety consultant in Willis North America's construction practice in Minneapolis. "The fall protection companies focused resources on the commercial side of the house and didn't focus much on residential."

Today, however, "the technology exists. There are hundreds of options available to comply with this standard," he said.

Moreover, pricing is down as fall protection equipment vendors compete for business at a time when fewer housing projects are in the works, Staffon said.

"I think it's a very good thing for the residential construction industry to start gravitating toward fall protection," he said. "On the commercial side of the house, we were having less falls. But on the residential side, falls seemed to be inching upward. All this is going to make it a much safer industry."

Joanne Wojcik writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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