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.

If you would like to make a comment about this blog post, please do so in the “comments” section provided below. And please, pass a link to this blog post along to others in your network who you think may benefit from this information.


  1. Curtis,

    I too was under the wrong impression as to metal decking roofing being covered under subpart M. Thanks for your clarification!

  2. Curtis - good call. Decking is covered be the erection standard. Along with that standard make sure that you have the QC bases covered as well. There is a history of us looking for the obvious, immediate fall hazards. We need to be sure that the decking fits properly between the supports. They can, and do, fall while concrete is being placed. Document, document, document.

  3. I have found this to be very true throughout the CFR. Many of the chemical manufacturing regulations exclude batch processing, which is how we process, and you must find the regulations specifically for batch processors. If we were to follow the continuous processing regulations we would not be in compliance. The citation that excludes a particular group usually refers the reader to the correct regulation. I discovered this when we had an outside consultant research which regulations would be applicable for a certain state. As I double checked the codes I found a few that excluded us. Now, the first thing I read is the scope and application.

  4. Subpart M addresses the requirements for when fall protection is required. It does not address every situation and how to provide fall protection - that is the responsibility of the employer's competent person.
    When working within the requirements of specific Subparts (R, X, V...), the fall protection application still needs to meet certain requirements in Subpart M: strength of anchorages, writing a site specific fall protection plan when conventional fall protection is infeasible (impossible) and training of the individuals using the site specific plan.
    The OSHA regulations are years behind the current times. The ANSI Z359 - 2007 revision provides a more current overview of fall protection, training requirements, qualifications of trainers (user, competent person, rescue, etc.)
    If a safety professional is only using the OSHA standards as the basis for his/her company's safety program or to teach work site safety, that individual is doing him/herself a dis-service and the students an injustice.
    The purpose of safety is to improve on what has already been established to protect the workers' safety and health.
    Having been in safety for over 41 years and seeing first hand what "trained" safety people are using for support of their companies' safety programs, I can say without reservation that we still have a long way to go to improve safety & health in the construction industry.


    A Concerned Safety Person

    1. Dear concerned safety person.

      First of all, thank you for commenting on this blog post. However, the statement that parts of subpart M still apply is not correct. The statement of scope and application (as appears in the original blog post)clearly says it does not apply to steel erection. The requirements for anchorages are covered in one of the appendices for subpart R, and the requirements for training and activities where conventional fall protection are not feasible are self-contained in that section too. But as you stated, it can never hurt to try and find a way to go above and beyond.

    2. This is a very basic aspect of being able to navigate and interpret the standards. This is the responsibility of the safety professional if so inclined to answer compliance questions.

    3. When fall protection is required in Subparts R, X, V, P, etc., like in a Controlled Decking Zone or for connectors or climbing of utility poles, Subpart M does apply. Subpart M provides the minimum requirements for Warning Line Systems, Work Positioning, the strength of fall protection anchorages (fall arrest, work positioning, warning lines....).

      To unilaterally state that Subpart M does not apply to fall protection in other vertical Subparts is incorrect.

      If, as a CSP, you are only using the 29 CFR 1926 standards for a safety program, then you are using a lot of outdated safety standards to try and reduce injuries and fatalities.

      Since this is your blog, you can respond in any manner you want to, even when you are not providing complete or accurate information.

      Bob Harrell
      Safety Management Services

    4. Bob, it is true that OSHA incorporated the criteria for certain fall protection devices (harnesses, anchors, railings . . .) from those sections of subpart M into Subpart R for steel erection, but it an incorporation by reference, and is included as a mandatory appendix (G) to the steel erection standard. The reason OSHA did this is so they would not have to open up for debate certain everyday things already in place when this rule was being negotiated. So in essence, yes the criteria for this equipment to be used are the same since they are incorporated by reference and included in the mandatory appendix, as clearly stated in the steel erection standard. If anm employer does not comply, though, they are cited the appropriate section from the steel erection standard / appendix.

  5. Very good information. As long as I have been in the safety business, since 1978 with Dow Chemical, then Schering Plough, then Motorola, and now Broward Health, I have ALWAYS carefully reviewed the standards, the requirements, and their applicability to the organization. I never want to impose rules, requirements, on any organization because, A. It may not be followed, B. You are setting the organization up for failure, C. You are imposing additional burdens on the organization, and D. It costs the organization more money to comply with your "not required" impositions. Safety is not about "how smart is our Safety Manager," it is about applicability.

  6. When training for the OSHA Southwest Training Institute at TEEX, I constantly reminded the participants to read and make sure they understood the DEFINITIONS and SCOPE sections of any standard they were trying to implement. Good articel and very much needed.

  7. You are so right! Most of the regulations came about through much discussion and forethought, sometimes almost to the point of overkill. We also have to remember that we are dealing with the DOL, and for that reason, we get crazy rules like in Subpart R. Statistically, we know that employees can die at 6' from a fall or 31'; so what's the difference? Dead is dead and maimed is maimed. Scope and application is there for a reason In scaffolding, the platform is allowed to be up to 18" from a wall without fall protection due to the nature of the work being performed. For the same reason, masons are not required to have fall protection on the wall side, but I cannot tell you how many Safety Directors insist on having a guardrail there, also. They are trying to make Subpart M apply to Subpart L, although the Standard is very clear on that point (in several places). A mason cannot "hold bond" without having his foot and body right up against the wall and sighting down.

  8. Great job on the post. I'm glad you caught it and I hope the person who got the wrong info finds your post in time. Best rule of thumb that I always follow is double check what you read. I would have gone over his post and checked to make sure he's right before saying anything, I don't care who it is. Have a Blessed Day.

  9. Good point about checking the scope and application of the standard before using it as an absolute reference. May also look at the interpretations and directives.

  10. Curtis – Great blog. Thanks for the information and links to OSHA training requirements … very helpful.


  11. Nice Job, this is a good training subject and will be required reading for the new safety pro's joining the organization. Keep up the great work.


  12. People don't think to look at the scope and applications in so many of the OSHA standards. This is a very well written piece and I am glad to see someone else point out how important this section is in the understanding of each individual standard.

  13. Great info on scope and app, a lot of people are guilty of the oversight, also remember no welding in controlled deck zones, thanks, regards, bto

  14. This is a great resource. THANKS,

  15. can ignore the "rules" altogether and just set up a system that keeps the worker on the same level they started on. In the end does it matter that the paper says Sub M, or Sub R, or Sub Whatever? 6 feet, 10 feet, 15 feet, or 25 feet? No, of course not. Not to mention it's confusing as heck to keep the numbers straight. What's the bottom line. Don't injure your workers, they're the most expensive peice of equipment most of you run. About $7K to train one to the point they can work on their own.

    I hate rules. I hate being told what to do. I hate them because we all get caught up in the black and white of them and miss the point of them. Why are there fall protection rules? To keep people from falling off stuff. Stop letting OSHA tell you how to run your business. Figure out how to do this in a way that makes sense for your business. If you can truly say I am keeping my worker from falling off of stuff then you'll never have an OSHA problem. Ask an OSHA expert "Can I get a citation for fall protection if my workers can't fall?" The answer is always no. Also on that note there are so many systems out there to keep people from falling there really is no excuse not to protect your investment. If there isn't one that works create one and sell it! That's my soapbox for you.

  16. As a former Ironworker and now Safety and Training Manager, I have done the work, had the debate and taught the regulations to many. I have also attended the funerals of those who insisted it "created a greater hazard" not to be tied off and the contractor who insisted it was to costly. There are methods being used out there that both save the employee and get the job done. Please keep the discussion going . . .Glenn

  17. Thanks for the clarification. I'm currently a student, and this teaches me to make sure that I pay particular attention to the "scope and applications" portions of the standards. This is a good reminder.

  18. Curtis,
    Good stuff here. Thanks for another view of this OSHA standard. We are commercial roofers and have to address small sections of steel deck replacement occasionally, so this is good information for us.


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