OSHA’s New Walking Working Surfaces Rule Is In Effect for General Industry
by Dwayne Towles
The final rule for OSHA’s Walking Working Surfaces was issued just over a week after the election and on January 17th (days before the inauguration), it went into effect. This new rule updated previous OSHA regulations that have been in place since the agency’s inception. It has only taken 27 years for OSHA to push this rule out the door. They first issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the rule way back in 1990. A second notice followed twenty years later in 2010. Then, in the final months of the Obama Administration, the rule was promulgated and hurriedly went into effect.
Overall, there has not been much pushback over the rule. For the most part, it finally incorporates existing technology that many employers have utilized for some time. It also more closely aligns itself with current national consensus standards and industry best practices that are already in place. In some areas, the new rule adds more flexibility than the old standard by expanding the allowable methods for compliance. For example, the new rule finally allows general industry employers to rely on fall protection systems rather than relying solely on guardrails and physical barriers in many instances.
Whether the new Walking Working Surfaces rule survives the efforts by the Trump Administration to stay and roll back the rules promulgated in the final days the Obama Administration still remains to be seen. Our suggestion is employers should not assume this rule will be rescinded; they should start working to achieve compliance now.
We plan to provide more articles over the next month or so about each section, going into more details on the changes. But until then, here are the most significant changes to the Walking Working Surfaces rule.
Fall protection flexibility 1910.28(b): The rule allows employers to protect workers from falls by choosing from a wider range of accepted fall protection systems, including personal fall protection systems. It eliminates the existing mandate to use guardrails as the primary fall protection method and gives employers the flexibility to determine what method they believe will work best in their particular workplace situation. OSHA believes this approach has been successful in the construction industry since 1994. The final rule allows employers to use non-conventional fall protection practices in certain situations, such as designated areas on low-slope roofs for work that is temporary and infrequent and fall protection plans on residential roofs when employers demonstrate guardrail, safety net, or personal fall protection systems are not feasible or create a greater hazard (1910.28(b)(1) and (b)(13)).
Updated scaffold requirements 1910.27(a): The rule replaces the terribly outdated general industry scaffold standards by requiring employers to follow OSHA’s construction scaffold standards. Most scaffold use falls under the construction standard anyway.
Phase-in of ladder safety systems or personal fall arrest systems on fixed ladders 1910.28(b)(9): The rule phases in over a period of 20 years a requirement to equip fixed ladders (that extend over 24 feet) with ladder safety or personal fall arrest systems and prohibits the use of cages and wells as a means of fall protection after the phase-in deadline. Finally, OSHA has recognized that cages and wells do not prevent workers from falling from fixed ladders or protect them from injury if a fall occurs. The final rule grandfathers in cages and wells on existing ladders, but requires during the phase-in period that employers equip new ladders and replacement ladders/ladder sections with ladder safety or personal fall arrest systems.
Phase-out of the “qualified climber” exception in outdoor advertising 1910.28(b)(10): This is a very narrow industry-specific focused provision that phases out OSHA’s directive allowing qualified climbers in outdoor advertising to climb fixed ladders on billboards without fall protection and phases in the requirement to equip fixed ladders (over 24 feet) with ladder safety or personal fall arrest systems. Outdoor advertising employers must follow the fall protection phase-in timeline for fixed ladders. However, if ladders do not have any fall protection, outdoor advertising employers have two (2) years to comply with the existing standard or, instead, they may install a ladder safety or personal fall arrest system, both of which are less expensive than cages or wells.
Rope Descent Systems (RDS) and certification of anchorages 1910.27(b): The rule prohibits employers from using RDS at heights greater than 300 feet above grade unless they demonstrate it is not feasible or creates a greater hazard to use any other system above that height. Note: A lawsuit has already been filed by an industry group challenging the 300-foot limit on the use of RDS. In addition, the final rule requires building owners to provide and employers to obtain information that permanent anchorages used with RDS have been inspected, tested, certified, and maintained as capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds per employee attached.
Personal fall protection system performance and use requirements 1910.140: The new rule allows employers to use personal fall protection systems (i.e., personal fall arrest, travel restraint, and positioning systems). However, it adds requirements on the performance, inspection, use, and maintenance of these systems. Like OSHA’s construction standards, the final rule prohibits the use of body belts as part of a personal fall arrest system.
Inspection of walking working surfaces 1910.22(d): The new rule now requires that employers inspect walking-working surfaces regularly. The employer must then correct, repair, or guard against hazardous conditions.
Training 1910.30: There are new requirements in the area. Within the next six months employers must ensure workers who use personal fall protection and work in other specified high hazard situations are trained, and retrained as necessary. The training must focus on fall and equipment hazards, including fall protection systems. OSHA spells out that employers must provide information and training to each worker in a manner that the worker understands.