What Everyone Needs to Know - Update to OSHA’s 2016 Walking-Working Surfaces Rule


By: Will Zettler, OSHA’s Directorate of Standards and Guidance

July 18, 2019

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a new rule on Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Protective Equipment (Fall Protection Systems) on November 18, 2016.  The rule became effective January 17, 2017, and revises and updates OSHA’s general industry standards that address slip, trip, and fall hazards, as well as other walking-working surface hazards that cause injuries and fatalities to workers. Additionally, the rule includes revised and new provisions addressing for example ladders, stairways, rope descent systems, and fall protection systems, adds training requirements, and adds requirements for employers who use personal fall protection systems.  Finally, the rule increases consistency between OSHA’s general industry and construction standards, making compliance easier for employers who conduct operations in both sectors.  Some of the more frequent issues that have come up in the two years since the rule became effective are discussed below.

Equipping fixed ladders with fall protection.  The new rule requires employers to equip new fixed ladders (that extend more than 24 feet above a lower level) with ladder safety systems or personal fall arrest systems. Employers can equip employees with a harness and a double lanyard system for tying off to the ladder while the employee climbs, provided the components meet all of the applicable requirements in §1910.140(c) and (d) and the ladder rungs are capable of supporting at least 5,000 pounds for each employee attached (anchorage requirement for personal fall arrest systems).

A frequent issue for employers trying to comply with the new rule is determining when or if their multi-sectioned fixed ladder needs protection installed or used when all or some of the sections are less than 24 feet in length.  Whether an employer must equip a fixed ladder or ladder sections with fall protection depends on the height the ladder extends above a lower level, and thus the distance a worker on the ladder could fall, not the length of any particular ladder section. Although the length of a section of the ladder may be less than 24 feet, if a worker on that ladder could fall more than 24 feet, that worker must be protected. Fall protection is not required on a multi section fixed ladder with offset platforms if the platforms are large enough that it would not be possible for a worker to fall past the platform or fall to the platform and roll over an unguarded edge and each ladder section was less than 24 feet in length. 

Certification of anchorages for rope descent systems.  Another issue OSHA has become aware of is the difficulty of getting anchorages used as part of a rope descent system (RDS) identified, tested, and certified to meet the requirements in 29 CFR 1910.27(b)(1).  A number of employers and building owners/managers have attempted to get anchorages tested and certified but have not been able to contract with a qualified person to perform the required tasks and come into compliance by the standard's compliance deadline (November 20, 2017). As a result, OSHA issued a memorandum to regional administrators on November 20, 2017, outlining enforcement guidance for the anchorage requirements. 

The memo explains that OSHA will evaluate, during relevant inspections, the efforts of both building owners and employers to comply with §1910.27(b)(1). For building owners, the evaluation will consider the building owner's attempts to initiate inspection, testing, and certification of RDS anchorages. For employers, the evaluation will consider what alternative protective measures are used before anchorages are certified, as well as employers’ efforts to obtain the proper written information (i.e., testing, certification, maintenance, etc. documentation) on anchorages from building owners required by the standard.  Where building owners and employers have sufficiently demonstrated/documented such efforts, OSHA will exercise, on a case-by-case basis, enforcement discretion to not issue citations under §1910.27(b)(1).  The memorandum can be found on OSHA’s website at: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2017-11-20.

OSHA continues to update its frequently asked questions webpage for the Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Equipment rule. The webpage can be found on OSHA’s website at: https://www.osha.gov/walking-working-surfaces/faq.html. A PDF copy of the final rule can be found on OSHA’s website at: https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/laws-regs/federalregister/2016-11-18.pdf.