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 http://www.osha.gov.

May 20, 2014

Mr. Jeffrey A. Spatz, CHST
Senior Safety Consultant
The Graham Company
The Graham Building
One Penn Square West
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Dear Mr. Spatz:

This is in response to your August 13, 2013, letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Because your letter involved construction issues, your inquiry was forwarded to OSHA's Directorate of Construction. You ask about fall protection requirements applicable during the construction of retaining walls. This response follows your September 25, 2013, phone conversation with my staff.

Scenario: In your letter, you indicated that a contractor is constructing a dry-laid retaining wall with geogrid. The top of the wall under construction - where employees are working - is greater than 6 feet above a lower level. During your phone discussion with my staff, you further clarified that this work typically occurs at sites like shopping malls, offices, and apartment buildings. You described a busy process with two to six workers manually laying pre-manufactured concrete blocks for the retaining wall and installing a geogrid.

Question (1): In the above scenario, what options do the workers have with regard to fall protection, and what requirements must employers follow?

Answer: 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1) - Unprotected sides and edges, states:

Each employee on a walking/working surface (horizontal and vertical surface) with an unprotected side or edge which is 6 feet (1.8 m) or more above a lower level shall be protected from falling by the use of guardrail systems, safety net systems, or personal fall arrest systems.

Under this provision, it is up to the employer to analyze the hazards of the work site and identify and implement effective protections - guardrails, safety nets, or fall arrest systems - that are appropriate to the site conditions and work processes. (Note that OSHA accepts a properly utilized fall restraint system that prevents an employee from getting to the fall hazard (edge) in lieu of a fall arrest system. See, for example, OSHA's previous letter of interpretation to Mr. Dennis Gilmore, dated November 2, 1995, which is enclosed and can be found at: http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=22006.) During your phone conversation with OSHA staff, you described a personal fall arrest system in which workers are attached to an engineered and secured horizontal lifeline by retractable means. Such a system, with 100 percent tie-off, may be sufficient so long as it effectively protects site workers and meets the requirements of 29 CFR 1926.502(d) - Personal fall arrest systems.

Questions (2) and (3): Once the wall is constructed and pending the arrival of the contractor who will be installing the final fencing or railing at the top of the wall, would the installation of orange plastic snow fencing a certain distance back from the top edge of the retaining wall serve as an adequate temporary means of satisfying any applicable fall protection requirement(s)? If not, what is required with regard to fall protection for employees working on the site whose work does not require them to approach the edge of the retaining wall?

Answer: No, the use of orange plastic snow fencing alone, located a certain distance back from the top edge of the retaining wall, does not meet the criteria for guardrails in 29 CFR 1926.502(b), and therefore does not satisfy the employer's duty to have fall protection in accordance with 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1).

In the Preamble to OSHA's fall protection rules at 29 CFR 1926, Subpart M, OSHA concluded that there is no particular distance from an unprotected side or edge that is safe enough to render fall protection unnecessary. (See 59 FR 40672, 40682-83 (Aug. 9, 1994).) We continue to believe that distance alone is ineffective to protect workers from unprotected sides or edges. However, we have determined that there is a point that is sufficiently far from an edge or hole to warrant the application of a de minimis policy regarding non-conforming guardrails.1

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, the use of certain physical barriers that fail to meet the criteria for a guardrail may be considered a de minimis condition if 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 29 CFR 1926.502(f)(2);
  3. No work or work-related activity is to take place in the area between the warning line and the edge or hole; and
  4. The employer effectively implements a work rule prohibiting the employees from going past the warning line.

This is consistent with OSHA's previous letters of interpretations to Mr. Barry Cole, dated May 12, 2000, and Mr. Mark Troxell, dated August 1, 2000. Both are enclosed and can be found respectively at:

http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=24802; and http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=23873

Question (4): With regard to the contractor installing the final fencing or railing at the top of the wall, what is required from a fall protection standpoint?

Answer: As with the process of constructing the retaining wall, the process of installing the railing or fencing is subject to 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(1), which requires the use of guardrails, safety nets, or fall arrest or restraint systems.

Thank you for your interest in occupational safety and health. We hope you find this information helpful. OSHA requirements are set by statute, standards, and regulations. Our 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 requirement discussed. Note that our guidance might be affected by changes to OSHA rules. To keep apprised of such developments and to view all OSHA standards, you can consult OSHA's website at http://www.osha.gov. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact the Directorate of Construction at (202) 693-2020.

Sincerely,

James G. Maddux, Director
Directorate of Construction

Enclosure


1 A de minimis condition arises when an employer implements a measure different than the one specified in the standard, but the discrepancy has no direct or immediate relationship to employee safety or health.

November 2, 1995

Mr. Dennis Gilmore
Safety Director
Tougher Industries, Inc.
P. O. Box 4067
Albany, New York 12204

Dear Mr. Gilmore:

This is in response to your letter of February 8, to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in which you requested that your company be exempted from 29 CFR 1926.502, Fall Protection Systems Criteria and Practices. You point out that your employees utilize restraint systems rather than fall arrest systems for employee protection from falling.

Although OSHA cannot exempt you from any part of the standards, we do concur that if certain portions of the standards do not apply to your operation, then you do not have to be concerned about complying with those sections. For example, if you do not utilize a controlled access zone, you do not have to follow those portions of the standards dealing with controlled access zones.

Although the standard does not mention them, we do accept properly utilized fall restraint systems in lieu of fall arrest systems when the restraint system is rigged in such a way that the employee cannot get to the fall hazard. We suggest that, as a minimum, fall restraint systems have the capacity to withstand at least three thousand (3000) pounds of force or twice the maximum expected force that is needed to restrain the person from exposure to the fall hazard. In determining this force, consideration should be given to site-specific factors such as the force generated by a person walking, leaning, or sliding down the work surface.

There are sections of 1926.502 that deal with matters other than fall protection systems, such as the sections on covers and protection from falling objects.

If you have any questions, please call me or Dale Cavanaugh of my staff at (202) 219-8136.

Sincerely,

Roy F. Gurnham, P.E., J.D.
Director
Office of Construction and Maritime
Compliance Assistance


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.

Sincerely,

Russell B. Swanson, Director
Directorate of Construction


August 1, 2000

Mark Troxell, Director of Safety
The Graham Company
107 Ponderosa Drive
Blandon, PA 19510

Re: 29 CFR 1926.501(b)(10) Roofing work and other trades working on low slope roofs

Dear Mr. Troxell:

This responds to your July 19, 1999 letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requesting clarification on the use of fall protection for employees, other than roofers, working on low slope roofs. We apologize for the long delay in providing this response.

In your letter you state that other trades (for example, electricians and mechanical trades), when working on roofs, tie-off only when they go outside the warning line system. You specifically ask if that type of procedure is acceptable to OSHA.

OSHA's fall protection standard for construction, 29 CFR 1926 Subpart M (beginning at §1926.500), generally requires fall protection when there is a fall distance of 6 feet or more. In a few, very specific situations (low-slope roof work, some leading edge work, precast concrete erection and residential construction), because of feasibility limitations, the standard permits the use of a warning line, in combination with other measures, instead of conventional fall protection (guardrail systems, personal fall arrest systems or safety net systems) to keep employees away from an edge.

Section 1926.501(b)(10) allows roofers working on low-sloped roofs to have several fall protection options. 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. OSHA recognized that guardrail systems, safety net systems and personal fall arrest systems could pose feasibility problems during roofing work; therefore, the rule allows other choices of fall protection methods.

Under paragraph 1926.501(b)(2), 1926.501(b)(12), and 1926.501(b)(13), employers engaged in other specified work, such as leading edge work, precast concrete erection, and residential construction may develop and implement a site specific fall protection plan that uses alternative fall protection methods if they can demonstrate infeasibility of conventional fall protection. In some cases warning lines may be used under these provisions.

The terms of the standard do not otherwise provide that warning lines may be used in place of conventional fall protection. However, we have now had six years of experience with the application of Subpart M since it was published in 1994. As we explained in a letter to Mr. Barry Cole last year, we have determined that in the areas further back from the distances specified for the warning lines permitted under the standard, there is a point that is sufficiently far from the edge to warrant the application of a de minimis policy regarding non-conforming guardrails.

Your letter states that the warning line system is "around the perimeter of the roof." At 15 feet from the edge, 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;
  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 edge; and
  4. The employer effectively implements a work rule prohibiting the employees from going past the warning line.

In sum, the use of warning lines closer than 15 feet from the edge is not permitted as a substitute for conventional fall protection for these other trades. Furthermore, when these other trades use a warning line system in accordance with the policy described above, the workers must use conventional fall protection when they are outside the protection of the warning line system.

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

Sincerely,

Russell B. Swanson, Director
Directorate of Construction

[Corrected 6/2/2005]