The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created by the United States Congress in 1970 in response to the injuries and deaths that were occurring in American workplaces. The law requires that employers provide “employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his/her employees.” The law also requires that employers comply with regulations that were developed pursuant to the establishment of OSHA. Since 1970, OSHA has created a significant, some would say excessive, number of regulations that address hazards in the workplace. This of course includes scaffolding. The original regulations were based on existing ANSI standards that had been developed over a number of years by industry and safety representatives and until OSHA was established, compliance was somewhat on a voluntary basis. On the other hand, the standards OSHA developed are mandatory. This was a big change for the industry. While responsible employers who were always concerned about employee safety didn’t see a big difference, those employers who put safety second were significantly affected.
The standards/regulations that OSHA established were developed with the input of the industry and generally were accepted by the industry. When the scaffold standards were revised in the 1980’s they were once again presented to the industry and the public for review and input. In fact, OSHA took over ten years to revise the scaffold standards due to the controversial nature of certain standards. The Scaffold Industry Association was a significant participant in this process on behalf of the scaffold industry.
We are now at similar crossroads that occurred in 1970 and again in the late 1980’s; the scaffold standards are being revised. Only this time, the process for revision is different. While the 1970 standards were based on existing consensus standards, and the revised standards were developed with the input of the industry, we now have the standards, in my opinion, changing without due process. Here is how I see the situation developing.
OSHA issues “Letters of Interpretation” in response to inquiries from concerned citizens who have a question about a specific standard. The purpose of these Letters of Interpretation is to clarify regulations that may not have been “perfect.” (For the record, and in defense of those who wrote the standards, it is extremely difficult to write standards and I think the authors of the existing standards did an excellent job.) The Letters should be carefully drafted to ensure that the intent of the regulation is met. The Letters should not alter the intent of the regulation nor should the Letters impose any additional obligation on employers and employees. Unfortunately, there have been recent Letters that significantly alter certain aspects of scaffolding. One example deals with scissors lifts, a product that is clearly classified as an aerial lift by both ANSI and the industry. OSHA has determined that a scissors lift is a rolling tower and therefore must comply with the regulations for supported scaffolds such as frame scaffolds. Another example applies to erectors of shoring towers and formwork. This letter requires that erectors wear and use personal fall protection equipment while climbing shoring frames. Additionally, when using the personal fall protection equipment, the user must comply with the Fall Protection Standards, specifically 29 CFR 1926. 502(d). Do you agree with this? If you don’t, you may be out of luck unless you choose to challenge the reasoning before a judge—at your expense. Of course, keep in mind that 29 CFR 1926.502(d) has been changed too. You are now permitted to free fall more than 6 feet provided the force on you body is no more than 1800 pounds, suggesting that certain regulations may be waived. To the best of my knowledge, these decisions are made without industry input.
The industry isn’t immune from state efforts either. Arizona, incredibly, decided that base plates weren’t required under scaffold legs supported by concrete slabs. This is contrary to American National Standards Institute standards, US Federal OSHA standards, and the SIA’s own Code of Safe Practices, not to mention manufacturers’ recommendations and good engineering practices.
Unqualified manipulation of existing standards is not good. Altering standards without a knowledgeable understanding of the ramifications ultimately leads to a chaotic assemblage of disparate and meaningless requirements that are extremely difficult to comply with, impossible to enforce and is counterproductive to the improvement of safety in the workplace. The effectiveness of the standard is diluted, the employer and employee become confused and the connection between regulation and work practice is diminished and ultimately lost.
So, where do we go from here? The industry, and you, can either lead or follow. While I agree that regulations cannot possibly cover every instance or situation, interpretations that have the force of law but are based on faulty data and illogical reasoning are not good for the industry. Furthermore, regulations and interpretations written without industry input are at best counter-productive, and at the worst, a violation of due process. Here’s what you can do; become familiar with the OSHA standards. Know when you are being duped by a local compliance officer who thinks that manipulation of the standards is good for the industry. Understand your rights and obligations. In other words, lead.
However, if this responsibility is too onerous or requires too much time, then follow. The road you’ll be led down will be an interesting trip; you just may not like the destination once you get there.