Train the Trainer 101: Fall Protection and the New Rule
With the publication of OSHA’s new final rule regarding 29 CFR 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V, the fall protection rules have changed – somewhat. Both the general and construction industries have had fall protection rules in place since the advent of workplace safety rules, including the duty to have fall protection found in 1926.501. However, provisions specific to the industry have enabled utilities and their contractors to operate under fall protection exemptions for poles and similar structures. That is no longer the case.
Before we go any further, there is a basic premise every safety manager must understand: OSHA’s intent is to protect all utility workers – in every workplace, performing any task – from falls. We will discuss the regulatory exceptions, but OSHA has restated at every opportunity the employer’s obligation and duty to provide and ensure fall protection for employees. In every installment of “Train the Trainer 101,” I try to convey the basis upon which OSHA makes exceptions and how they determine when an employer violates a rule expectation. In the case of fall protection, our industry has enjoyed the free-climbers exception because in the past there was no practical way to provide fall protection to climbers, or fall protection was infeasible for the conditions or work being performed. That is no longer the case, so I want to reinforce this point: OSHA’s intent is that climbers be protected. If you start your new fall protection planning from that perspective, you will save yourself a lot of trouble later. Following are a few of the key issues concerning fall protection and the new final rule.
The Fall Protection Exception
The exception to fall protection begins and ends with another premise: It is safer to climb with fall protection than without fall protection. The only time it is acceptable to climb without fall protection is when the employer can show that climbing with fall protection poses a greater risk than climbing without it. The most common scenario proposed by employers for when it may not be safer to climb with fall protection is in the case of congested distribution poles. I agree. I have climbed distribution poles that had no gaps in facilities greater than 18 inches from the lowest bell to the lower cross-arm brace lag. In the preamble to the final rule (see page 20400), OSHA reviews statistics related to free-climbing by qualified persons. They point out that the exception rendered in the 1994 rule did not significantly result in a safer workplace, and that, with current equipment available in the marketplace, climbing and changing positions while protected is practical.
OSHA does recognize that there may be some scenarios in which protection is impractical and perhaps even a potential risk issue. Still, recognition is not a blanket exception and the preamble discussion is guidance toward decision-making. If an employer decides that free-climbing past communications facilities is permitted, that employer is expected to have performed a duly diligent analysis. Climbing while protected is the default condition (see final rule, page 20401).
Employers must also understand that a fall protection exception for a congested pole does not grant an exception for the pole sections above the congested area or for the pole section below the congested area. The requirement is clear: A fall protection exception for passing multiple obstructions does not apply below, above or at the work location, and fall protection must be used.
Work Positioning as Fall Arrest
The employer must decide what type of fall protection is to be used through an analysis of the work environment in compliance with the duty to provide fall protection for the employee. The fall protection plan must be developed following the requirements of the new rule. As discussed earlier, previously there were exceptions for qualified climbers being buckled off. And, because there was a lack of technology to otherwise secure a climber, OSHA accepted work-positioning equipment – the traditional body belt and safety strap – as a means of fall protection. Everyone in the industry knew that work-positioning equipment would not save you from a fall unless you were above facilities. Everyone also knew if you cut out with your strap around the pole, you were going to clean off all of the splinters on your way down.
OSHA still accepts work-positioning equipment as fall protection. However, work-positioning equipment used alone is not acceptable as fall protection unless it is rigged to prevent a fall of more than 2 feet (0.6 meters). Rigging as fall protection means that the safety has to be placed over an anchor point – or what we will call a “stop” – substantial enough to catch the safety strap and prevent the worker from falling more than 2 feet before stopping the fall.
There are several considerations that need to be understood. First, a fall arrest at the waist is prohibited. Unlike full-body harnesses, safety belts and work-positioning belts secure workers at the waist. As such, they must stop a fall within 2 feet to prevent excess and unpermitted stress on the body during the arrest. The stop does not have to be rated or engineered as a fall anchorage. Rule 1910.269(g)(2)(iv)(E) requires that anchorages for work-positioning equipment be capable of supporting at least twice the potential impact load of an employee’s fall or 3,000 pounds-force, whichever is greater. It is practical to use facilities such as guy attachments, cross-arm braces and insulator brackets as anchorages.
The next question is, what about screwdrivers? The first part of the answer is that using large shank screwdrivers as anchors or stops is not prohibited if it meets the above rule. Even if you decide it’s OK to use screwdrivers for anchorages, it’s somewhat pointless because it doesn’t truly solve the issue. Like the exception for climbing past obstructions, an anchorage for fall prevention with a work-positioning belt is fixed and can only be used at a fixed position on the pole. A climber would still have to employ portable fall protection from ground to the work position.
4 Feet and 6 Feet
In the new rule there is no longer a difference between 1910.269 and Subpart V regarding the height above which fall protection is required on poles and similar structures. Climbers on poles and similar structures are required to have fall protection above 4 feet. However, there are still differences between the general industry and construction industry standards for other work surfaces not covered under poles and similar structures, and those differences affect utilities in particular (see “Substation Transformers” section below). The horizontal standard, which affects all workplaces except poles and similar structures covered under 1910.269 and Subpart V, is 6 feet in 1926 Subpart M (see 1926.501). This is the only exception to the 4-foot fall protection rules in 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V.
The current qualified climber exception – which ends April 1, 2015, under the new rules – applies to poles, towers and similar structures. Structural steel and transformer tops in substations are not included in this rule. Note 1 in 1910.269(g)(2)(v) states that this paragraph does not apply to electric equipment such as transformers and capacitors, and that those surfaces are covered under Subpart D, “Walking-Working Surfaces.”
Subpart D requires a railing to protect workers from transformer top fall hazards. In a 1995 letter of interpretation to Oglethorpe Power Corp., OSHA again clarified that transformer tops are other working surfaces covered by Subpart D. In that letter, OSHA advised that a standard railing or other method that provides equivalent fall protection must be used. In the preamble to the new rule, OSHA recognizes travel-restricting equipment as a means of fall protection that can be used on transformers (see page 20398). OSHA has also recognized that railings are sometimes impracticable and, in 2010 rulemaking for Subpart D, allowed other means – including fall restraint systems – to be used, affirming the 1995 guidance to Oglethorpe Power. Ultimately, at every turn, OSHA has restated the employer’s obligation and duty to provide and ensure fall protection for employees. Transformer tops, like any other surface 4 feet above surrounding surfaces (or 6 feet above for construction per Subpart M; see the “4 Feet and 6 Feet” section), are a recognized fall risk and are covered.
Body Belts in Buckets
Rule 1910.269(g)(2)(iv)(C)(1) requires each employee working from an aerial lift to use a fall restraint system or a personal fall arrest system. For several years, body belts – as opposed to body harnesses – have been prohibited from use as fall arrest from bucket trucks, which are referred to as “aerial devices” in the rules. OSHA, however, has never prohibited body belts used and rigged as fall restraints. The difference in the final rule is that OSHA has now realized that there is a use for fall restraint, and they have listed fall restraint as a method of providing fall protection to employees.
Employers must understand the differences between and limitations of each system. The basic rule is that you cannot arrest a fall at the waist. Arrest at the waist can cause severe injury, and risks from suspension trauma are significantly greater in a body belt than in a full-body harness. In addition, suspended workers can and do fall out of belts, but are unlikely to fall out of a full-body harness. This brings us back to the work-positioning equipment. For the same reason, it must be rigged to prevent a fall of no more than 2 feet to reduce injury to the employee from concentrated forces at the waist. There is little possibility for suspension trauma in work-positioning equipment because the worker is against the pole, unlikely to be inverted in such a short slide and most likely able to recover on their own.
The test for whether a body belt can be used in a bucket fall protection system is, can the equipment prevent the worker from leaving the bucket? If it can, it is permitted. This does raise issues regarding where the body belt is attached and the length of the lanyard. Many employers have adopted the boom as the anchorage point for bucket fall protection systems over concerns that an anchorage on the bucket is not strong enough. A short lanyard anchored on the boom will most likely not be able to prevent the worker from being launched out of the bucket in a serious bounce. Short lanyards do significantly reduce the force imposed on the anchorage; still, many do not want to anchor in the bucket. There are devices on the market that provide an anchorage in the form of a rope around the lip of the bucket that also has a tether to the boom to prevent loss of the bucket and anchorage in a bucket failure.
About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn has devoted the last 16 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is director of safety for Atkinson Power. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: “Train the Trainer 101” is a regular feature designed to assist trainers by making complex technical issues deliverable in a nontechnical format. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Kate Wade at email@example.com.
Sidebar: OSHA Temporary Citation Guidelines
OSHA has issued temporary citation guidelines for the enforcement of the revised 29 CFR 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V standards. Not affected are those parts of the standards with enforcement delayed until 2015, as well as 1910.137(a) and (c) and 1926.97(a) and (c). Enforcement of paragraphs 1910.137(b) and 1926.97(b), which contain new rules for voltage withstand of primary protective devices, is delayed until October 31, 2014.
Enforcement was originally scheduled to begin July 10, 2014. However, until October 31, OSHA will accept compliance with the 1910.269 and 1926 rules in effect on April 11 (the old standards) as compliance with the new rules. It is important that employers understand that a violation of the original standards between July 10 and October 31 could result in a citation for violations of applicable standards in effect, which include those rules whose enforcement is being delayed.
These guidelines emphasize that employers understand that fall protection from buckets will not be considered as in compliance under the old rules unless they are also in compliance with 1926 Subpart M as it applies to bucket trucks. Employers should also note that the temporary citation guidelines do not mention enforcement delays for any portion of 1926 Subpart M, in particular 1926.502 rules requiring the employer to have fall protection for all workers, prohibit body belt use in fall arrest systems, use locking snaps and rig positioning devices to limit falls to 2 feet.