May 012011

May 2011
BuilderNews Magazine
News Feature


Safety First

OSHA Rescinds Exemptions for Residential Fall Protection


We’ve all seen it before: A group of workers up on a roof, scrambling up a 10:12 pitch, a ladder leant against the eave, a smattering of staging planks scattered here and there, with, perhaps, a line of 2×4 toe kicks closer to the peak. No harnesses. No safety nets. Nothing, in fact, between them and the ground save for a few 2-by-boards, work-site bravado and a lot of good fortune.

Dangerous? Definitely. Illegal? Well, that was always a little harder to tell. Not even the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) knew where to draw the line. And, for the last 16 years, the agency has left a great deal of residential construction and fall protection safety up to the judgment of the employer, the employees and the OSHA compliance officer on case by case basis. According to a 1995 OSHA directive (STD 3.1 – Interim Fall Protection Compliance Guidelines for Residential Construction), OSHA’s enforcement policy allowed for a considerable amount of “compliance flexibility” on certain residential construction activities, including, among others, a roofing tear-off, shingling and/or repair.

Late last year, however, OSHA drew that line. A new directive (STD 03-11-002), issued on December 16, 2010, rescinded the 1995 directive allowing “compliance flexibility,” reinstated all pre-existing standards prior to 1995, and effectively imposed far stricter fall protection safety regulations for all residential construction projects. The new directive (STD 03-11-002) gives builders until July 2011 to comply or face the possibility of hefty OSHA fines.

As of July 2001, contractors are again required to provide and/or ensure the use of guardrails, safety nets or personal fall arrest systems for all workers, employees and subcontractors, working six feet or more above the lower level. If “conventional” fall protection cannot be used, the contractor or roofer must then provide an alternative method, or methods, of fall protection and must also maintain, on site and available to all workers, a written document explaining why conventional fall protection was not feasible and what alternative methods would be used.

When these standards were established, in 1994, both the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) argued that the standards failed to account for safety measures commonly used in the industry, such as roof brackets and 2x6s, which, opponents argued, provided adequate slide arrest protection for workers. Industry professionals also argued, as they still do, that on many residential construction activities, the use of conventional fall protection systems is either infeasible or poses a greater threat to worker safety than many alternative methods.

OSHA, recognizing the need for further consideration, then issued STD 3.1 as a temporary directive intended solely to give OSHA officials time to review the existing standards. Under STD 3.1, OSHA allowed for “compliance flexibility” for four, specific groups of residential construction activities. Taken, verbatim from a 1999, plain-language revision of the directive, those four groups were:

GROUP 1: Installation of floor joists, floor sheathing, and roof sheathing; erecting exterior walls; setting and bracing roof trusses and rafters.

GROUP 2: Working on concrete and block foundation walls and related formwork.

GROUP 3: This group consists of the following activities when performed in attics and on roofs: installing drywall, insulation, HVAC systems, electrical systems (including alarms, telephone lines, and cable TV), plumbing and carpentry.

GROUP 4: Roofing work (removal, repair, or installation of weatherproofing roofing materials such as shingles, tile and tar paper).

One of the most important, and somewhat trouble of provisions of 1995 directive, was that it also allowed contractors and roofers to simply ignore the existing OSHA standards, for those activities listed, and to use alternative methods, without having to document why conventional methods were not used or what alternative methods would be used instead. What all this essentially created, explains Bob McLeod, the manager of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA), was a considerable amount of ambiguity and confusion for builders and roofers. “It looked like it might be a good idea,” says McLeod, referring to the ‘95 directive, “but in actual practice it was so confusing and it created so many problems that it just wasn’t worth it.”

One significant point of confusion, McLeod notes, was determining what activities were, or were not, covered under the 1995 directive. If, for instance, a worker went from roofing in the morning to installing siding in the afternoon, the required fall protection not only changed, but the contractor’s compliance and documentation responsibilities also changed.

More importantly, though — and the main reason why OSHA has rescinded the STD 3.1A directive — is that with this confusion came an unacceptable level of worker risk. US construction workers, while comprising only five percent of the US work force, account for nearly 20 percent of all worker deaths, reports OSHA. And, among the leading cause of deaths in the construction industry, most are from falls, and the vast majority of hose fall take place in residential construction. Consider the numbers:

There are roughly 6.7 million construction workers employed in the US, and every workday of every year, one of those workers will fall to his or her death. Factor in the number of reported worksite injuries resulting from falls, and one in every 20 US construction workers will endure death or serious injury, this year alone, from a worksite fall. And, contrary to common opinion, the US census reports that older workers (45 to 54-years-old) are far more likely to be killed on the job than any other age group, with the number of 45 to 54-year-old worker deaths outnumbering all 16 to 34-year-old worker deaths combined.

 What Builders Need to Know

As of June 16, 2011, all residential contractors and roofers must now adhere to OSHA’s fall protection safety standards 1926.501 and 1926.502, on all residential projects.

What this means is that for any worker on site, either as an employee or subcontractor, who is working six or more feet about the lower level, the contractor is required to provide and/or ensure the use of one of three conventional fall protection systems — guardrails, safety nets and/or personal fall arrest systems. If such systems are deemed either infeasible or to present a greater safety hazard to the worker, an alternative method of fall protection may be still be used. But, unlike in the past, the use of alternative methods of fall protection must be accompanied by written documentation that explains why a conventional system was not use and what alternative system is to be used instead. This plan then must be left on site and made available to all workers.

It is also important to note that OSHA requires written documentation for each individual use of alternative fall protection systems, and for each occurrence. A production builders, for instance, cannot not use the same plan for all homes of a similar design within a development, but must instead produce a new plan for each new work site and construction activity.

To sum up OSHA’s new directive: If you can use one of the three conventional fall protection systems, use it. OSHA has intentionally sought to discourage, and make onerous, the use of alternative methods in the interest of improving worker safety. As the directive clearly states: “OSHA is not persuaded that there are significant safety or feasibility problems with the use of such equipment for the vast majority of residential construction activities.”


Side Bar:

Federal OSHA’s Top Ten Standards cited for violation by general contractors in the construction of single-family housing (from October 2009 to September 2010) and the average fine imposed:


Standard Cited

Standard #

# of Citations

Average Fine Imposed


General Requirements





Duty to have fall protection










Training requirements- Fall Protection





Hazard communication





General safety and health provisions





Head protection





Eye and face protection





Training requirements: Scaffolds





Wiring design and protection




Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration



For information on OSHA’s fall protection standards and the conventional fall protection systems, see the links below:

OSHA “Fall Hazards: Participant Guide,” at

Directive STD 03-11-002

OSHA standard 1926. 501 – Duty to have fall protection:

OSHA standard 1926.502 – Fall protection systems criteria and practices: