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May 25, 2010

Walking-Working Surfaces and Fall Protection Systems

Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a potentially lethal workplace hazard lurks at the feet of millions of workers in the U.S. The floors and other surfaces that American workers walk on during our daily work routines can be the cause of serious injuries. Slips, trips and falls — particularly falls from elevated heights — for decades have been a leading cause of workplace fatalities in the U.S. Since 1992, the U.S. has averaged over 300 work-related deaths a year that can be attributable to slips, trips, or falls in the workplace; well over 75 percent of these fatalities are due to falls from elevated heights.

OSHA believes that many of these deaths and injuries could be prevented if employers followed existing OSHA regulations and recommended safe practices. On May 24, 2010, OSHA thus proposed a sweeping set of regulations intended to revise the walking-working surfaces standards and the personal protective equipment (PPE) standards in the OSHA regulations. 75 Fed. Reg. 28552. Comments on the 300 page long rule are due August 23, 2010.

OSHA has struggled to update its regulations related to walking-working surfaces for decades. The most current comprehensive attempt was proposed by the Agency over two decades ago on April 10, 1990. 55 Fed. Reg. 13360. That proposal was never completed in final, and the existing standards have been in effect for over 30 years. The May 24 proposal seeks to strengthen the standards. It would revise 29 C.F.R. Part 1910 Subpart D (existing standards for walking-working surfaces) in three ways:

  • Revise the standards to reflect current industry practices and national consensus standards;
  • Harmonize provisions, when possible, with other OSHA provisions; and
  • Use performance-oriented language rather than specification-oriented language.

The proposal would also revise Subpart I to 29 C.F.R. Part 1910 to include new specific performance and use requirements for personal fall protection equipment. Existing regulations in Subpart I contain general requirements for all types of PPE, but it fails to contain criteria for fall protection PPE. OSHA’s May 24 proposal seeks to address that shortcoming.

Not surprisingly, the scope of the proposed rule is extremely broad. If implemented, the proposed changes to the regulations would apply to all walking-working surfaces at all general industry workplaces, unless specifically excluded. The walking and working surfaces covered by the proposal are present in nearly every establishment. OSHA estimates that 6.7 million establishments employing 112 million employees would be impacted by the proposed standards.

The standards revise or establish the general requirements for walking-working surfaces as well as the standards for ladders, step bolts, manhole steps, stairways, dockboards, and scaffolds. The proposal also establishes a duty to have fall protection and establishes criteria and practices for fall protection systems. The standards appear straightforward. For example, the general requirements for walking-working surfaces require the following:

  • Surface Conditions — All places of employment, passageways, storerooms, and service rooms must be kept clean and orderly, and in a sanitary condition. The floor of every workroom must be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, dry condition. Where wet processes are used, drainage shall be maintained and false floors, platforms, mats, or other dry standing places shall be provided where practicable. Employers must ensure that all surfaces are designed, constructed, and maintained free of recognized hazards that can result in injury or death to employees.
  • Application of Loads — Employers must ensure that walking-working surfaces are designed, constructed, and maintained to support their maximum intended load. Employers must also ensure that the surfaces are not loaded beyond their maximum intended load.
  • Access and Egress — The employer must ensure employees are provided with and use a safe means of access to and egress from one walking-working surface to another.
  • Maintenance and Repair — Employers must ensure regularly inspection of walking-working surfaces to ensure that they are in a safe condition for employee use. The employer must also ensure that all hazardous conditions are promptly corrected or repaired. If the repair cannot be made immediately, the hazard must be guarded to prevent employee use. Where hazardous conditions may affect the structural integrity of the walking-working surface, a qualified person must perform or supervise the maintenance or repair of that surface.

As noted above, comments on the proposed rulemaking are due by August 23, 2010.