OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards and regulations. Our interpretation letters explain these requirements and how they apply to particular circumstances, but they cannot create additional employer obligations. This letter constitutes OSHA's interpretation of the requirements discussed. Note that our enforcement guidance may be affected by changes to OSHA rules. Also, from time to time we update our guidance in response to new information. To keep apprised of such developments, you can consult OSHA's website at https://www.osha.gov.

December 6, 1991

Mr. Stephen D. Cooper, Safety Director
International Association of Bridge,
Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers
Suite 400
1750 New York, Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20006

Dear Mr. Cooper:

Your letter of August 12, 1991, to Mr. Steve Witt concerning the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Interpretation of the requirement for a lifesaving skiff to be immediately available at locations where employees are working over or adjacent to water, has been referred to the [Directorate of Enforcement Programs] for reply. I apologize for the delay in responding to your inquiry.

This agency has not addressed this issue before at the national level and, therefore, there is no interpretive precedent. However, as 29 CFR 1926.106(d) is a performance oriented standard, it is appropriate for OSHA to hereby establish the following criteria for determining when a lifesaving skiff is to be considered as being "immediately available":

  • The skiff must be in the water or capable of being quickly launched by one person.
  • There must be at least one person present and specifically designated to respond to water emergencies and operate the skiff at all times when there are employees above water.
  • When the operator is on break another operator must be designated to provide the requisite coverage while employees are above water.
  • The designated operator must either man the skiff at all times or remain in the immediate area such that the operator can quickly reach the skiff and get underway.
  • The skiff operator may be assigned other tasks provided the tasks do not interfere with the operator's ability to quickly reach the skiff and get underway.
  • The communication system, such as a walkie-talkie, must be used to inform the skiff operator of an emergency and to inform the operator where the skiff is needed.
  • The skiff must be equipped with both a motor and oars.

With regard to the number of skiffs required and the appropriate maximum response time, the following factors must be evaluated:

  • The number of work locations where there is a danger of falling into water;
  • The distance to each of those locations;
  • Water temperature;
  • Currents;
  • Other hazards such as, but not limited to, rapids, dams, and water intakes.
  • The fact that, in the event a personal flotation device is not worn or malfunctions, permanent brain damage can occur in a drowning victim within three to four minutes of oxygen deprivation.

In addition to the preceding, the employer is required to comply with all other applicable standards including, but not limited to, the requirements that the injured employee be promptly treated by medical personnel or an employee certified in first aid. This could mean that medical treatment might have to begin in the lifesaving skiff.

In regard to the requirement of 29 CFR 1926.106(a) for employees to wear U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets, please be advised as follows: All employees working on bridges and not constantly protected from falls into the water where the danger of drowning exists are required to wear life jackets or buoyant work vests. The previous policy to exempt workers from wearing such equipment at heights greater than 30 feet is no longer in effect.

If we can be of any further assistance, please contact [the Directorate of Construction at (202) 693-2020].


Patrick K. Clark, Director
[Directorate of Enforcement Programs]

[Corrected 9/30/2004]