OSHA proposes limiting the use of spiral stairs

OSHA Proposes Sweeping Fall Protection/PPE Rule Revisions

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced in a notice of proposed rulemaking published in the May 24 Federal Register its plans to require improved worker protection from tripping, slipping, and falling hazards on walking and working surfaces.

"This proposal addresses workplace hazards that are a leading cause of work related injuries and deaths," said OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels.

The NPRM describes revisions to the Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Protective Equipment standards to help prevent an estimated annual 20 workplace fatalities and more than 3,500 injuries serious enough to cause people to miss work. For example, in July 2009, a worker at a chocolate processing plant was killed after falling from an unguarded work platform.

"This is a clear and grave example of the human cost incurred when fall protection safeguards are absent, ignored, or inadequate," said Michaels. "The loss of a worker's life might have been prevented if the protective measures in these revised standards had been in place and in use."

The current walking-working surfaces regulations allow employers to provide outdated and dangerous fall protection equipment such as lanyards and body belts that can result in workers suffering greater injury from falls. Construction and maritime workers already receive safer, more effective fall protection devices such as self-retracting lanyards and ladder safety and rope descent systems, which these proposed revisions would also require for general industry workers.

Current standards also do not allow OSHA to fine employers who let workers climb certain ladders without fall protection. Under the revised standards, this restriction would be lifted in virtually all industries, allowing OSHA inspectors to fine employers who jeopardize their workers’ safety and lives by climbing these ladders without proper fall protection.

OSHA notes that most of its existing standards for walking-working surfaces are more than 30 years old and inconsistent with both national consensus standards and more-recently promulgated OSHA standards addressing fall protection.

Among the areas covered in the sweeping proposal are significant revisions to the existing general industry scaffold standards; requirements for guardrail, safety net, and personal fall protection systems (including fall arrest, and positioning, and travel restraint systems); key-term definition amendments; rules for load limits; requirements for portable and fixed ladders; rules for ladders in elevator shafts; requirements for building anchorages and tie-offs; rules for the design, capacity, and use of step bolts and manhole steps; stairway design and installation criteria; requirements for riser heights and stairway landing platform widths; specific rules to limit the use of spiral stairs, ship stairs, or alternating tread-type stairs to "special limited usage" and "secondary access" situations when the employer demonstrates that it is not practical to provide a standard stairway; requirements for dockboards (bridge plates); rules to prohibit the use of rope-descent systems at heights greater than 300 feet; the establishment of 11 requirements employers must meet when rope-descent systems are used; requirements for employees in hoist areas of walking-working surfaces that are 4 feet or more above lower levels; specific requirements for the outdoor advertising and window cleaning industries; criteria that employees must meet to be considered qualified climbers; criteria for grab handle use; requirements for employee training and retraining; and more.

The wide-ranging proposal addresses not only falls and other hazards associated with walking-working surfaces but also hazards leading to combustible dust explosions and other accidents. Part of OSHA's current rules require that all places of employment, passageways, storerooms, and service rooms be kept clean and orderly, and in a sanitary condition. A paragraph in the new proposal requires that floors of workrooms be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, dry condition. It also requires that, where wet processes are used, drainage be maintained, and false floors, platforms, mats, or other dry-standing places be provided when practicable. The agency said it does not expect all surfaces to be maintained in a pristine manner; however, surfaces must be maintained in a condition that will prevent slips, trips, falls, and other hazards.

Historically, OSHA interpreted these provisions as applying to combustible-dust accumulations associated with fire and explosion hazards. Regarding this interpretation, one court stated that "the housekeeping standard is not limited to tripping and falling hazards, but may be applied to [a] significant accumulation of combustible dust" [Con Agra Inc. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Com'n, 672 F.2d 699, 702 (8th Cir. 1982), citing Bunge Corp. v. Secretary of Labor, 638 F.2d 831, 834 (5th Cir. 1981), which reached the same conclusion]. OSHA says the cases show that Sec. 1910.22(a) serves as one of the agency's most important enforcement tools for preventing combustible-dust accumulations and it continues to be an important element of OSHA's enforcement strategy for this hazard. Therefore, the agency seeks comment on whether it should include an explicit reference to combustible dust or other hazardous material in the regulatory language of the final rule. The agency says the language would merely clarify OSHA's long-held interpretation that Sec. 1910.22(a) is not limited to the hazards of slips, trips, and falls, but also addresses any hazard that can be created when floors and work areas are not maintained in an orderly, clean, dry, and sanitary condition.

OSHA also is seeking comment on whether specific regulations are needed to cover falls from rolling stock and commercial motor vehicles. Existing subpart D does not specifically address or exclude fall protection on rolling stock or motor vehicles from coverage. For the purposes of this issue, the term "rolling stock" means any locomotive, railcar, or vehicle operated exclusively on a rail or rails, or a trolley bus operated by electric power supplied from an overhead wire.

In addition, the agency is seeking input on whether there is a need to promulgate a specific requirement in subpart D to address situations where an employer can demonstrate that it is infeasible or creates a greater hazard to use conventional fall protection to protect employees exposed to falling 4 feet or more from stacked materials. Some commenters have recommended that OSHA allow the use of safe work practices by trained employees in lieu of conventional fall protection for certain activities. OSHA seeks comment on the current fall protection measures that are in use, and the degree to which conventional fall protection is infeasible or creates a greater hazard.

Furthermore, the agency is soliciting comments, as well as costs/benefits analyses, on whether the rulemaking should include language mandating that employers provide appropriate waterproof footgear, such as rubber overboots, in situations where wet processes are used.

Presently, the agency's standards for fall protection on walking-working surfaces in general industry differ from the comparable standards for construction work. In most instances, employees use similar work practices to perform similar tasks, irrespective of whether they are technically doing construction or general industry work. Whether OSHA's construction or general industry standards apply to a particular job depends upon whether the employer is altering the system (construction work) or maintaining the system (general industry work). For example, replacing an elevated ventilation system at an industrial site would be construction work if it involves upgrading the system, but general industry work if it involves replacing the system with the same model.

Since the work practices used by the employees would most likely be identical in both situations, it is desirable for OSHA's general industry and construction standards to be as consistent as possible. Under OSHA's existing requirements, however, different requirements might apply to similar work practices, e.g., an employer overhauling two or more ventilation systems may have to comply with two different sets of OSHA requirements if one project is considered construction and another general industry. The existing inconsistencies between the construction and general industry standards create difficulties for employers attempting to develop appropriate work practices for their employees. For this reason, employers and employees have told OSHA that they would like the two standards to match more closely. This proposal attempts to achieve that result.

Comments on the proposed rulemaking will be accepted until Aug. 23. A public hearing on the revised changes will be held after the public comment period. To read the proposed rulemaking notice and get instructions for submitting comments, go to http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/2010-10418.htm.

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