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.

May 12, 2000

Mr. Barry A. Cole
Executive Vice-President
Steel Erectors Safety Association
of Colorado
5750 Pecos Street, Suite 6
Denver, Colorado 80221

Re: Fall Protection/Use of barricades; 1926.500, Subpart M

Dear Mr. Cole:

This is in response to your letter dated July 24, 1998, addressed to OSHA's Directorate of Construction. In the letter you ask a series of questions regarding 29 CFR 1926.500, Subpart M. We apologize for the long delay in responding.

Issue: In viewing your questions together, we understand them to amount to the following issue: Subpart M generally requires fall protection (personal fall protection, guardrails, covers) when there is a fall distance of 6 feet or more. In a few, very specific situations, the standard permits the use of control lines instead of guardrails to keep employees away from a hole or edge. Apart from those situations, if an employee is far enough from a hole or edge, may control lines be used instead of the specified fall protection devices? If so, how far is that distance?

Background: The type of fall protection required by the standard depends to some extent on the work activity. Generally, §1926.501(b)(2)(ii) requires that employees on a walking/working surface 6 feet or more above a lower level shall be protected from falling by a guardrail system, safety net system, or personal fall arrest system. Section 1926.501(b)(4)(i) requires that employees on walking/working surfaces be protected from falling through holes (including skylights) more than 6 feet above lower levels, by personal fall arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems around such holes. Sections 1926.501(b)(4) (ii) and (iii) require that employees on a walking/working surface be protected from tripping or stepping into or through holes (including skylights) or from objects falling through holes by covers.

In the rulemaking for Subpart M, OSHA determined that in certain very limited situations, warning lines are an appropriate means of protection. Section 1926.501(b)(10) sets out the fall protection requirement for roofing work on low slope roofs. Under that section an employer may use a combination of warning lines 6 feet (and in some cases 10 feet) back from the edge in combination with monitors in place of personal fall protection equipment or guardrails. Under §1926.501(b)(2), employers engaged in other specified work, such as leading edge work, precast concrete erection work, and residential construction, may develop and implement a site-specific fall protection plan that uses alternative fall protection methods if they can demonstrate the infeasibility of conventional fall protection. As can be seen in the examples given in Appendix E to Subpart M, warning lines 6 feet back from the edge can be used as part of such a plan.

Answer: The standard requires workers exposed to falls of 6 feet or more to lower levels to be protected from falls. As discussed in the Preamble to Subpart M in volume 59 of the Federal Register (page 40683), OSHA determined in the rulemaking that there is no safe distance from an unprotected side or edge of a walking/working surface that would render protection unnecessary. The Agency also identified in the rulemaking the specific situations where warning lines 6 and 10 feet back from a hole or edge were appropriate substitutes for guardrails, personal fall protection, and covers. It would be inappropriate for us to revisit those determinations and allow warning lines to be used in other circumstances at 6 and 10 feet back outside of the rulemaking process. Consequently, it would be inappropriate to apply a de minimis policy that would have the effect of extending the provisions for warning lines at 6 and 10 feet to situations other than the limited ones identified in the standard.

In contrast, a question remains about whether a de minimis policy on the use of warning lines in areas farther back from those specifically addressed in the rule would be appropriate. Our finding in the Preamble that there is no safe distance from an unprotected side or edge referred to an issue raised in the rulemaking of whether distance alone is ever sufficient protection from an unprotected edge. When OSHA proposed in 1986 to revise the fall protection requirements, we asked the public if fall protection was necessary for employees working 10, 20, or 30 feet from an unprotected edge. In response, some commenters stated that distance alone was not enough. They stated that employees may "wander," and the fact that the area where the work is taking place is far from the edge is, by itself, ineffective to ensure that workers will not approach the edge (59 FR 40682).

We have now had 5 years of experience with the application of the rule since it was published in 1994. We continue to believe that distance alone is ineffective to protect workers from unprotected sides or edges. However, we have determined that, in the area farther back from the distances specified for the warning lines permitted under the standard, there is a point that is sufficiently far from the edge or hole to warrant the application of a de minimis policy regarding non-conforming guardrails.

At 15 feet from the edge or hole (in the case of a hole, measured from the nearest edge of the hole), a warning line, combined with effective work rules, can be expected to prevent workers from going past the line and approaching the edge. Also, at that distance, the failure of a barrier to restrain a worker from unintentionally crossing it would not place the worker in immediate risk of falling off the edge. Therefore, we will apply a de minimis policy for non-conforming guardrails 15 or more feet from the edge under certain circumstances. Specifically, we will consider the use of certain physical barriers that fail to meet the criteria for a guardrail a de minimis violation of the guardrail criteria in §1926.502(b) where all of the following are met:

  1. A warning line is used 15 feet or more from the edge (or nearest edge of a hole);
  2. The warning line meets or exceeds the requirements in §1926.502(f)(2);
  3. No work or work-related activity is to take place in the area between the warning line and the hole or edge; and
  4. The employer effectively implements a work rule prohibiting the employees from going past the warning line.

If you need additional information, please contact us by fax (202-693-1689) at: U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA, Office of Construction Standards and Guidance. You can also contact us by mail at U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA, Office of Construction Standards and Guidance, Room N3468, 200 Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20210, although there will be a delay in our receiving correspondence by mail.


Russell B. Swanson, Director
Directorate of Construction