Residential fall protection and slide guards

by Thomas R. Shanahan, CAE

In August 1994, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued updated fall-protection regulations under 29 CFR 1926.500—also known as Subpart M. The regulations changed the trigger height for fall protection from 16 feet to 6 feet. The change affected the entire construction industry but most significantly roofing contractors performing residential (steep-slope) work; it meant roofing work on virtually every structure required using one of three conventional types of fall protection: guardrails, safety nets or personal fall-arrest systems.

The regulations allowed for using written site-specific fall-protection plans instead of conventional fall-protection options if the employer could show conventional methods either were infeasible or created a greater hazard. The burden with this option—especially for small residential contractors—was proving infeasibility or greater hazard for hundreds of small/short-term jobs, as well as the significant paperwork requirements.

In response to comments issued by NRCA after Subpart M's release explaining that conventional fall-protection options are not always the most effective for protecting workers in certain residential applications, OSHA considered adding an appendix to Subpart M—Appendix F.

Appendix F: Residential Fall Protection Plan for Roofing Work would introduce the concept of using eave slide guards on new and existing residential buildings with slopes between 4-in-12 (18 degrees) and 6-in-12 (27 degrees) where ground-to-eave heights are 25 feet or less. Additionally, for roofs with slopes of 6-in-12 (27 degrees) to 8-in-12 (34 degrees) with a similar height restriction, additional slide guards are required going up the roof under work areas at intervals of 8 feet or less. (To view additional details that accompany use of this alternative, visit and type "interim guidelines" into the site search box.)

Before the promulgation of Subpart M, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) identified the need for generic fall-protection plans to help its members. In response to NAHB's concerns, OSHA added Appendix E to the standard, a fall-plan template that homebuilding contractors could use for certain jobs. Appendix F was intended to be an adjunct to Appendix E but purely for roofing applications.

However, after Subpart M was published, NAHB identified other issues and combined with NRCA's concerns, the topic was gaining notoriety in Congress, OSHA realized focusing on only residential roofing would be insufficient.

Standard protocol required that OSHA formally reopen the rule to properly assess all the rule's problems. However, to address the immediate problems, the Appendix F idea was scrapped and OSHA developed Interim Fall Protection Guidelines for Residential Construction in December 1995. These guidelines, which are separated into four groups (three addressing specific NAHB concerns and one addressing NRCA's concerns), were intended to be a temporary solution for certain residential contractors to use until OSHA reopened Subpart M.

More than 13 years have passed, and these guidelines still are in place, albeit with a rewrite issued in June 1999: Plain Language Revision of OSHA Instruction STD 3.1, Interim Fall Protection Compliance Guidelines for Residential Construction. The guidelines' directive number changed to STD 03-00-001; the basic slide guard tenets remained the same.

NAHB asserts the directive has caused confusion among homebuilders and sent a letter to OSHA's assistant secretary asking that STD 03-00-001 be removed. NAHB also asked OSHA to consider doing two things: define the term "residential construction" (NAHB provided a suggestion) and allow employers to develop and use a standardized fall-protection plan that is product-specific.

Additionally, NAHB asked OSHA's Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) during its Residential Fall Protection Workgroup in May 2008 to formally request OSHA withdraw the directive.

Leading up to this meeting were several other meetings addressing residential fall protection where large residential new construction builders reported using 100 percent fall protection (personal fall-arrest systems worn by all workers) during projects, which reportedly had saved several workers' lives.

This was compelling testimony; however, 100 percent fall protection certainly is more feasible for new construction projects than for reroofing, repair or maintenance work.

For new construction projects, trusses are exposed for easy anchor installation; there typically are no occupants, landscaping or other obstructions to cause concern; and no tear-off of existing roof systems is required. However, for repair and reroofing operations, these factors can create new challenges that may blur the assumption that 100 percent fall protection always is feasible and never creates a greater hazard than other methods.

NRCA has several problems with NAHB's requests. First, it is easy for anybody to refer to himself or herself as a "residential roofing contractor": He or she merely can buy cheap shingles and install them. However, these contractors often don't pay insurance premiums, taxes or employee benefits, or employ job-site safety. As such, their prices are much lower. The purchase of equipment and the time and cost required to install 100 percent fall protection or draft site-specific plans puts professional roofing contractors at a large price disadvantage.

Professional roofing contractors who use slide guards as an option can more reasonably sell safety to homeowners; for example, the directive's slide guard approach offers a low-cost, easily installed fall-prevention option and possibly prompts discriminating homeowners to ask the low-price contractors about their safety practices. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest slide guards aren't a viable alternative for this type of roofing work.

I serve as an employer representative with ACCSH and argued that removing the directive would leave no reasonable alternative to conventional fall protection. I explained that though the three parts of the directive NAHB won may cause confusion for NAHB's contractors, the roofing portion has provided necessary clarification and a workable solution for applicable roofing projects. I also noted that NAHB did not negotiate the directive's roofing portion and should confine its request to its own negotiation areas.

Despite my objections, an ACCSH motion was passed with two dissenters (including NRCA) to ask OSHA to withdraw the directive.

NRCA needs your feedback regarding this issue. Do you think slide guards should remain a fall-protection option for installing residential (steep-slope) roof systems? To share your opinion and experiences, you can fill out a survey by clicking here. Without your feedback, the roofing industry could lose a reasonable, viable fall-prevention alternative.

Thomas R. Shanahan, CAE, is NRCA's associate executive director of NRCA University and risk management.

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to Safe Solutions.