OSHA’s final rule on 29 CFR 1910 Subpart D, “Walking-Working Surfaces,” is finally here. It’s 26 pages of nine-point font equaling 21,675 words, and I read them all. It’s big, and if you include the preamble in your analysis, it is also complicated. It was just as hard to write about as it was to read. I guess that shouldn’t be unexpected for a final rule that has been in the works since 1983. The original 1910 Subpart D was published in 1971. The first update was proposed in 1983, but it was never ratified. Proposals were again considered in either the Construction standard or the General Industry standard in 1990, 1994 and 2003. This edition of the final rule for 1910 Subpart D covers it all. OSHA should be congratulated for bringing almost all of the fall-related standards into one location, making it easier for the employer to find rules related to working surfaces under one subpart instead of having to search for those rules that may affect the employer’s workplace. This may be news to some novice safety professionals in the utility industry, but not all regulations affecting us are restricted to 1910.269 or 1926 Subpart V. Subpart D applies, so it is important to be familiar with it.
Preventing falls is almost the entire purpose of rules for walking-working surfaces. The surfaces are not always those spaces of aisles between walls. Most walking or working spaces in the workplace are not defined aisles; they are more likely to be incidental spaces about the work area. It is quite easy for those incidental spaces to be encumbered by tools, materials and process waste that create stumbling or tripping hazards. In addition, many of those working spaces are raised surfaces, from the tops of foundations to the tops of skyscrapers. That being the case, OSHA has brought into Subpart D the body of fall protection standards. You will now find a greatly expanded section on ladders; step bolts (towers) and manhole steps; scaffolds and rope descent systems (building maintenance); the duty to have fall protection; new and expanded requirements on fall protection equipment design; and some expanded language on the training of employees to recognize and prevent falls in the workplace.
For years, colleagues and I have been trying to explain and promote the practical definitions of the OSHA standards. Many employers, unfamiliar with the intent and means of interpretation, have tried to apply the direct language of the rules. OSHA has come to the rescue in this standard by applying new, simple language as well as clear interpretations to some existing rules. The first clarification is the expanded language and clearly established scope of Subpart D. In 1910.22(a), “Surface conditions,” the standard requires the employer to keep clean, orderly and sanitary conditions; to maintain clean and, to the extent feasible, dry workroom floors; and to keep walking-working surfaces free of hazards, such as sharp or protruding objects, loose boards, corrosion, leaks, spills, snow and ice.
These rules do not just apply to generation and office facilities and maintenance areas. The Subpart D definition of a walking-working surface means any horizontal or vertical surface on or through which an employee walks, works or gains access to a work area or workplace location. The mere fact that the standard requires the walking-working surface to be kept free of ice and snow means it also applies to outdoor workplaces, and that includes power-line rights-of-way. In practicable terms, OSHA does not expect you to use a snowplow on a workplace below a pole, but the employer will be expected to maintain the walking-working surface so that it is clear of tripping or other hazards as practically as possible. If it is possible to grade a churned-up area or clear the immediate area of vines and tree limbs to prevent stumbling and the injuries that may be sustained in a fall, the employer should do so. If it is possible to clear, fill or even grade and rock access to a frequent work area, the employer should analyze the benefit and practicality of doing so. Obviously this is power-line and storm work, and emergency repairs are not like routine construction or maintenance. We can’t drain and improve every right-of-way work surface, but if it is recognized that someone is likely to get hurt in that space, and there is no reason it can’t be improved, we should consider it.
This walking-working surfaces safety expectation includes trucks and trailers, too. If an employee has to access a truck bed, there must be a walkable space to do so. Paragraph 1910.22(c) requires that the employer provide – and ensure each employee uses – a safe means of access and egress to and from walking-working surfaces. The walking area on the bed of a truck may be at a premium, but the access means and handholds to that space are covered as well. I see loading plans that begin and end with “throw the stuff as far and as high as you can; we have a lot of stuff to get on here.” Instead, add trailers for material transport. Use crew trucks with hangers and racks. Install step bumpers and handholds. Train your employees to load a truck bed with a plan to access as necessary for unloading in order to minimize risks to the employees. This also reminds us to maintain policies for access to truck and trailer beds at designated points. Scampering up and over wheels and jumping off the bed are prohibited by the intent of this rule.
OSHA has expanded the ladders section – found at 1910.23 – mostly to better define expectations, including ladder construction specifications. Much of the information the employer needs on ladders can be found in the preamble discussions on ladders. Remember that preamble discussions are not rules for the employer, but the preamble does clearly explain OSHA’s intent and views on the rules written. It also includes OSHA’s responses to stakeholder questions and objections regarding the proposed rules. One of my favorite misunderstood rules is the three-point ladder-climbing rule that is defined by many as prohibiting an employee from carrying tools or equipment on a ladder. When asked, I have always said that it is best to climb hands free, but there is no prohibition in the standard against climbing with hand-carried tools or materials. OSHA agrees, as demonstrated in 1910.23(b)(11) through (b)(13). These rules require the employee to face the ladder “when climbing” (moving up or down), to keep one hand on the ladder “when climbing,” and to refrain from carrying any object or load that could cause the employee to lose balance and fall while climbing up or down the ladder. These rules were widely discussed in the preamble, in which OSHA, in a very practical moment, wrote that “neither the final rule nor the construction ladder standard prohibit workers from carrying an object while climbing a ladder.” The final rule allows workers to carry an object, provided they:
• Face the ladder while climbing (1910.23(b)(11));
• Grasp the ladder with at least one hand at all times when climbing up and down the ladder, which will ensure workers maintain at least three points of contact (1910.23(b)(12)); and
• Do not carry any objects that could cause them to lose their balance and fall (1910.23(b)(13)).
In the preamble to the construction ladder standard, OSHA stated: “Although OSHA believes that small items such as hammers, pliers, measuring tapes, nails, paint brushes, and similar items should be carried in pouches, holsters, or belt loops, the language in the final rule would not preclude an employee from carrying such items while climbing a ladder so long as the items don’t impede the employee’s ability to maintain full control while climbing or descending the ladder …”
Please don’t misunderstand Incident Prevention’s or my intent here. We are explaining the practicality and explanation of the rules, not promoting carrying items on ladders. Ultimately, as the intent of the rules makes clear, the employer has a responsibility to ensure employees are safe while climbing. The expectation is that employers should evaluate ladder use risks and injury prevention and establish and train employees on policies and procedures to that end.
Ladders and Fall Protection
OSHA has at last directly addressed fall protection and ladders. In the past the rules simply did not address fall protection on ladders. Language on fall protection was conspicuously absent, but employers assumed anyway that fall protection was required. There are very practical reasons why fall protection from ladders has not been required by OSHA. The first is simple practicality. How do you protect a climber moving up and down a ladder? More important is the hazard associated with a ladder falling with a worker tied to it. I’ve seen the results and they’re ugly. The practical rule is yes, you can and should employ fall protection for an employee working from a position on a ladder if you can secure the ladder from falling, but OSHA has clearly addressed the issue in this rulemaking. Rule 1910.28, “Duty to have fall protection and falling object protection,” states the following:
• “1910.28(a)(1): This section requires employers to provide protection for each employee exposed to fall and falling object hazards. Unless stated otherwise, the employer must ensure that all fall protection and falling object protection required by this section meet the criteria in § 1910.29, except that personal fall protection systems required by this section meet the criteria of § 1910.140.”
• “1910.28(a)(2)(i): This section does not apply to portable ladders.”
That is it. OSHA has addressed fall protection from ladders simply; the rules for fall protection do not apply to portable ladders.
The Exceptions for 1910.269
In addition to the exception for ladders described above, there is an exception for 1910.269(g)(2)(i). That section is the requirement for fall protection equipment governed by 1910 Subpart I, “Personal Protective Equipment.” You will recall that in the generation, transmission and distribution standard final rule of 2014, the fall protection standard for industry equipment was moved to Subpart I. That still applies. Keep in mind that this is not an exception from the fall protection requirements of Subpart D in its entirety. It is only an exception from the equipment standards of Subpart D. The rationale is that the Subpart I fall protection equipment standards are entirely appropriate for the utility industry and need not be disturbed.
Step Bolts and Manhole Steps
It’s no secret in the industry that tower steps and manhole steps, both covered by 1910.24, “Step bolts and manhole steps,” break or fail and have contributed to serious injuries and fatalities. OSHA has addressed them by adopting the minimum consensus design standard. OSHA also has established an implementation standard for construction of step bolts, requiring that any step bolt installed before the effective date of January 17, 2017, be able to sustain its intended load. After January 17, any step bolt installed in an environment where corrosion may occur must be constructed of or coated with corrosion-resistant material, and meet the standards for design and spacing found in rules 1910.24(a)(1) through (a)(5).
For manhole steps (see 1910.24(b)) installed before January 17, 2017, the requirement is that they be able to sustain the expected load. However, all manhole steps installed after January 17 must meet the new construction requirements for corrosion and slip resistance via a knurled, dimpled, corrugated or other similarly effective surface. The anticipated question is, what about the manholes that were sitting on my yard on January 16? Simple enough. If the steps installed in the manhole were put in before January 17, they are OK as long as they will support the weight. The same goes for rails laying in the laydown of a yard. As long as the steps were installed before January 17, they would not have to meet the new requirements. Of course, this is a practical approach; OSHA would not expect the industry to dispose of millions of dollars of stored inventory to meet the new rule. In addition, if the manholes or towers were for new construction, they would not be covered under this General Industry standard. There are no similar standards currently found in the OSHA Construction standard, but an employer would be expected to follow consensus standards for design, corrosion resistance and spacing of steps and step bolts as currently defined.
Substation Power Transformers
Yes, substation power transformers are covered. The top of a power transformer is one of the work surfaces that falls under unprotected sides and edges covered by 1910.28(b)(15), “Walking-working surfaces not otherwise addressed.”
Subpart D requires a railing to protect workers from transformer top fall hazards. In a 1995 letter of interpretation to Oglethorpe Power (see www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=21981), OSHA clarified that transformer tops are other working surfaces covered by 1910 Subpart D. In that letter OSHA advised that a “standard railing or other method which provides equivalent fall protection must be used.” In the preamble to 1910.269, OSHA recognized travel-restricting equipment as a means of fall protection that can be used on transformers. OSHA also has recognized that railings are sometimes impracticable and, in the 2010 rulemaking for Subpart D, allowed other means – which include fall restraint systems – to be used, affirming the 1995 guidance to Oglethorpe Power. In the preamble to this Subpart D final rule, OSHA has taken the steps to clearly define for the employer that travel-restricting means are acceptable alternatives to fall prevention systems for employees. 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, are a recognized fall risk and are covered. Now, as to the travel-restraint system itself, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a factory-designed stanchion system as an anchorage. However, some employers do so assuming the restraint-system anchorage must be rated for 5,000 pounds, which is not the case. Here the interpretations provided by OSHA help the employer to determine the requirements. The definition for a travel-restraint system, as listed in 1910.140(b), is a “combination of an anchorage, anchorage connector, lanyard (or other means of connection), and body support that an employer uses to eliminate the possibility of an employee going over the edge of a walking-working surface.”
The definition of an anchorage is a secure point of attachment for equipment such as lifelines, lanyards or deceleration devices. The use of the word “anchorage” in a rule does not in itself mean a 3,000-pound or 5,000-pound engineered point of attachment. Where those rated anchorages are required is specified for the types of systems employed. A travel-restraint system anchorage must be sufficient to perform the task as determined by the needs of the device and the exposure or working conditions. The employer is expected to be able to demonstrate that the system employed will meet the requirements of effectively restraining the employees’ travel so that they cannot go over the unprotected edge.
Working on Trucks and Equipment
The only thing I think is missing from the new final rule is language addressing working on, traveling across or performing maintenance on trucks, trailers and similar equipment. In the past, when employers asked OSHA about fall protection when working on equipment or vehicles, OSHA responded with the citation from 1926.501, “Duty to have fall protection.” That rule, written similarly to the new Subpart D standard, differs in the way the exemptions are listed. However, the argument for the exception is rooted both in practicality and in OSHA’s past interpretations (see www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=27032).
As we have explained before, the OSHA fall protection standards of 1926 Subpart M require employees to be protected from falls on any walking-working surface, vertical or horizontal. However, the definition of a walking-working surface in 1926.500(b)(2) specifically exempts vehicles or trailers on which employees must be located in order to perform their job duties. This exception is practical as there is no viable means to accomplish fall protection in these work locations. Any type of arrest system would still allow workers to strike lower levels like truck beds, toolboxes or turrets. To help protect workers on equipment, the ANSI standard requires handholds, footholds and improved walking routes/surfaces to reduce fall potential, and OSHA requires that those devices be maintained. These are similarly covered in the crane and derrick standard, specifically 1926.1423(c). The bottom line is that fall protection is not required, pathways to operator stations should be grip-coated, and handholds and footholds should be reasonably located and maintained.
One of the last two issues we will cover here is the expanded emphasis on falling objects. These objects were previously addressed in a limited way in the scaffolds rules. Now the language and expectations are expanded and regard any elevated work surface where falling objects from the work surface could injure workers below. The rules expectation of 1910.28(c) is that workers below use head protection, and the work surface above must now be equipped with toeboards at the work surface, protective canopies below the work surface, or the area into which objects may fall must be barricaded. That would suggest an expectation that those areas below a lineworker aloft on a pole or structure, as well as a substation transformer, should be barricaded to prevent bystanders from entering into a drop zone.
OSHA 1910.30 requires that all employees exposed to fall hazards, including falling object hazards, be trained by May 17, 2017. Training must be provided by a qualified person who meets the requirements listed in the paragraph.
This article mostly focused on the overhead lines aspect of the new standard, but every U.S. employer should take the time to read both the preamble and the rules to see how they apply to your workplace. If you have questions or comments, please send them to us.