Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Most Overlooked Paragraph in the OSHA Standards

Several months ago I was reading posts made by members in one of the many social networking groups I belong to that are dedicated to occupational health and safety matters. The original discussion question inquired about the regulations that should be applied to workers who were not wearing fall protection harnesses while spreading metal decking on the roof of a steel structure at a jobsite she was visiting.

One very helpful reader responded that the work she saw being performed was regulated by OSHA’s Fall Protection standards in Subpart M of the 1926 construction standards, specifically 1926.502(b)(2), related to workers who are conducting “leading edge work”.  He explained how that particular OSHA standard allowed several options for fall protection while the workers were laying the decking, including the development and implementation of a written site-specific fall protection plan that met the requirements of 1926.502(k) if the company decided it was not feasible or created a greater hazard to use conventional fall protection. He then went into a lengthy explanation about the proper set-up and use of a controlled access zone and all the other elements of the written fall protection plan that are spelled out in that OSHA standard. It was all very detailed, very concise, and unfortunately, very wrong!

Let me state right off the bat that this blog post is NOT about degrading someone who made a mistake. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years I have been in this business, that’s just how certain lessons get ingrained into our heads. Nor is this post about starting a debate on the preferred use of one form of fall protection over another (perhaps in a future blog post?). The purpose of this post is to point out a very common mistake made by many safety practitioners; the failure to read the paragraph establishing the "Scope and Application" of an OSHA standard.

Here’s where the breakdown occurred; If you refer to the first section of Subpart M in the OSHA construction regulations for fall protection (it’s section 1926.500, titled “Scope, application, and definitions applicable to this subpart”), you will see paragraph (a)(2), which states:

“Section 1926.501 sets forth those workplaces, conditions, operations, and circumstances for which fall protection shall be provided except as follows:”

The operative term here is “except”. Paragraph (a)(2) goes on to list several types of equipment and work activities that are NOT covered by the requirements of Subpart M, including but not limited to use of scaffolding (that section’s fall protection requirements are covered in Subpart L), stairways and ladders (that section’s fall protection requirements are covered in Subpart X), and steel erection (that section’s fall protection requirements are covered in Subpart R). And when you refer to Subpart R, section 1926.751, you will see that spreading metal deck on a structural steel building is defined as steel erection work; and the fall protection requirements for steel erectors are set forth in 1926.760.

Now what is the problem with citing the wrong OSHA standard here? First of all, the person who asked the question is now armed with the wrong information, so when she writes her report or goes to confront the sub-contractor and cites the wrong standard, she may get this thrown back in her face, causing her to lose some credibility. Secondly, had she told the sub-contractor that they were required by OSHA to follow Subpart M requirements and they agreed to do so, they would be working in violation of the much more detailed requirements for employee training and fall protection provisions contained in Subpart R, and that would not make the OSHA compliance inspector very happy if one came by to inspect the job. And third, if she chooses to go above and beyond OSHA requirements and re-write contract specifications for future jobs to require all sub-contractors to utilize only personal fall arrest systems in all situations when workers are exposed to the falls hazards addressed in Subpart M (therefore disallowing controlled access zones and other allowances made by OSHA), she can also incorporate references to Subpart R (and L and X and all the others) as well, so additional misunderstandings can be avoided.

So the next time you start to reference or implement an OSHA standard, take the time to back up and read the scope and application section of the OSHA standard (not every OSHA standard has one), and make certain that you are actually in the right Subpart. Because if you want to advise someone of OSHA requirements, or even if you choose to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of an OSHA standard, it would be wise to understand exactly where that standard actually does (or does not) apply before you get started.

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