An assessment of the OSHA standards that apply to fall protection for scaffolds and scaffold users and erectors.
Have you ever asked yourself how many ways fall protection can be screwed up, particularly on scaffolds? Well, based on my experience, misapplication and misuse is only limited by the number of workers on the job. Rationale doesn’t seem to be a consideration nor does common sense. I recently testified as an expert in a lawsuit where the employer insisted that the reason the employer did not want the employees utilizing personal fall arrest equipment is because if the suspended scaffold fell it would entangle the employees in the rigging. Lucky for the employer the employees listened. Unlucky for the employees, they rode the scaffold down and died in the process.
So why is it so difficult to provide fall protection? Is there magic? Nope-no magic; you just have to know and understand how this stuff works. Let’s review a few things and see if we can sort it out.
Fall protection regulations/standards can be found in a number of references. In construction, the federal OSHA standards address scaffold fall protection in Subpart L and M. Well, actually it is addressed in Subpart L, not M. However, if you are going to use personal fall arrest equipment, then you have to use the applicable standards that are found in Subpart M, namely 29 CFR 1926.502(d). This is where all the good regulations regarding lanyards, connectors, dee-rings, snaphooks, horizontal lifelines, anchor strength, freefall distance, deceleration distance, maximum arresting force and related topics are hiding. In fact part of the feasibility test for scaffold erector fall protection is located in 29 CFR 1926.502(d). Of course, this is where plenty of the confusion starts since it appears the 502(d) standards are either misunderstood, misread, or maybe just not read. Here are a few of the myths and misconceptions that occur regarding the use of personal fall arrest systems (PFAS):
- Using (not wearing but actually using) PFAS won’t hurt you;
- Many people actually use PFAS;
- Tying off is the same as fall arrest;
- 100% tie-off works;
- Scaffold erectors are exempt from fall protection;
- Scaffold erectors aren’t exempt from fall protection;
- Restraint is the same as fall arrest;
- Positioning is the same as fall arrest;
- PFAS anchors must hold 5,000 pounds;
- Guessing an anchor can hold 5,000 pounds is acceptable;
- Nobody knows how much force is exerted on the anchor when an employee falls;
- The potential loads on horizontal lifeline anchors aren’t very high;
- The 5,000 pound anchor strength is based on science;
- You don’t have to be a competent person to determine if another is competent;
- The Goodyear blimp doesn’t make a good anchor;
- Money (financial burden) cannot be included in feasibility;
- There is an OSHA definition for “feasibility”;
- An anchor that looks good works;
- A scaffold erector can tie off at her feet, especially if it looks good;
- Supported scaffolds make good anchors;
- Supported scaffolds don’t make good anchors;
- You can tie off to scaffolds;
- You cannot tie off to scaffolds;
- All OSHA compliance officers can correctly evaluate PFAS;
- All scaffold erectors can correctly evaluate PFAS;
- All employers can correctly evaluate PFAS;
- 100% tie-off is the same as 100% fall protection.
If you think any of these myths are true, you aren’t the competent person you think you are. Well, except for the Goodyear blimp thing; that may be true! The point here is that too many people have the apparent authority to promulgate inaccuracies. Personal fall arrest is quite simple in theory, difficult in practice. The freefall distance is a critical component that directly impacts the required strength of the anchor. Likewise, the deceleration distance has a direct impact on the anchor load. More freefall and less deceleration distance dramatically increases the anchor load. (Think jumping into a pool full of marshmallows as opposed to landing on a concrete sidewalk.) Is insisting that the leading edge scaffold erector tie off at his feet really any better than allowing him to use his skill and experience to minimize the fall hazard through the use of safe erection techniques?
Finally, the fall protection standards work for stationary employees; that is an employee working in one location, rather than walking back and forth over a distance as scaffold erectors tend to do. A vertical lifeline is not conducive to straying horizontally from the anchor and horizontal lifelines only work if there is no scaffold above you. Besides, the anchor in a horizontal line can easily see load in excess of 10,000 pounds if not rigged properly; it’s tough to get a scaffold to hold that.
What is a person to do? Well, for supported scaffold erectors complying with 29 CFR 1926.451(g)(2) would be a good place to start. This standard requires that the employer have a competent person “determine the feasibility and safety of providing fall protection for employees erecting or dismantling supported scaffolds.” Of course, this standard doesn’t say that you have the right to tell the competent person that he/she is wrong. This standard doesn’t say you get to question the decision. But if you are competent, this standard sure gives you the right to determine if he or she is indeed competent! In other words, be sure you’re sure before you see if they’re sure. Think about it.