Workplace Safety in 2017 – Protecting Rooftop Employees

How did changes to OSHA rules in 2017 affect employer's workplace safety responsibilities for rooftop employees? Learn more here.

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Published on: September 27, 2017

Rooftops are dangerous places to work. Whether installing solar panels, repairing roof-mounted HVAC systems, or performing routine roof inspections, laborers who work on roofs need adequate fall protection. In the construction industry alone, accidental falls routinely cause at least 250 deaths per year.

In order to mitigate the risks that falling poses and save workers’ lives, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implements and enforces numerous standards concerning rooftop workers’ safety conditions. These regulations regularly change in response to developments in the industries they effect – as new technologies and discoveries concerning the nature of workplace accidents allow employers to better protect their employees.

New Regulations for Rooftop Workers

In the last quarter of 2016, OSHA updated its rules concerning fall protection safety standards for rooftop workers. In particular, guard rail and fall protection systems must now be incorporated onto worksites even when the work is of a temporary and infrequent nature. In the past, this key term has served as a loophole for employers who wishes to short-change their employee’s safety – but not anymore.

For instance, current regulations assert that employers are responsible for using fall protection systems no less than six feet away from roof edges when laborers are working on temporary and infrequent projects. By comparison, workers operating on regular projects must benefit from fall protection systems when working less than 15 feet away from the roofs nearest edge.

Additionally, guard rails must meet certain additional criteria. The top rails must be between 39 and 45 inches above the working surface, intermediate mid-rails must be installed if there is no attached wall, and rails must be strong enough to withstand 200 pounds of force without failing.

Importantly, fall protection systems benefit from a new, more inclusive set of definitions. Instead of being limited to guard rails, employers may now use more involved active fall protection systems. Regulators found that certain long-held standards, such as ladder cages, were actually statistically more dangerous than other fall protection systems, and have altered their definitions to follow suit.

However, with the rules changing based on whether work is on a permanent fixture or a temporary one, another important definition comes into play. What constitutes a temporary and infrequent worksite?

What Is a Temporary and Infrequent Worksite?

The official wording of OSHA’s update explains that temporary work includes any task that a worker might be able to perform in less time than it would take to properly install the appropriate fall protection countermeasures. Importantly, this definition relies on the nature of the work being performed – so temporary might last longer for an HVAC technician installing a rooftop central air condition than it would for a painter.

Infrequent work also has a more specific definition. Namely, it includes all work performed only on an occasional basis, when needed. Examples include annual maintenance tasks, the servicing of equipment, or responding to outages and breakdowns. Infrequent work includes all work for which employee’s exposure to falling risk is limited.

Importantly, OSHA combines these terms using a figure of speech called hendiadys – combining two terms with the word “and” in between to refer to a single idea. While this term is famous for giving lawyers and judges wiggle room when deciding cases, it is clear that for the purposes of fall protection employers need to demonstrate that a worksite fulfills bothdefinitions.

Having OSHA’s definitions in mind, employers need to be able to clearly determine whether their worksites qualify is being both infrequent and temporary. Employers that can effectively classify their worksites are able to protect employees against falls in a more efficient way.

For instance, rooftop laborers working on an infrequent and temporary capacity on low-slope roofs more than 15 feet away from a roof edge do not need active fall protection – so long as workers keep that distance. The language of the OSHA update allows administrative control to take care of this, for example, through a clearly designated working space that limits the active working area.

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