If you think OSHA's primary job is to hand out citations and hefty fines all day, think again. OSHA's real mission is assuring the safe working conditions for employees throughout the country. It sets and enforces standards for matters related to occupational health and safety. OSHA also provides outreach and education. One of the ways they do that is by compiling statistics on frequent safety violations (learn about the Top 10 OSHA Violations You May Have Committed Last Year). This helps employers and safety professionals know where to focus their efforts.

In 2016, fall protection topped OSHA's list of most cited safety violations for the sixth year in a row. It would be bad enough if these violations only resulted in added risk and injury for the workers, but they carry heavy financial consequences as well. No company can afford to overlook its fall safety obligations (see Connecting the Dots: Safety and Profitability to learn more).

If you've ever read through OSHA's fall protection regulations (if you work at heights, you should be familiar with them), then you know they can be hard to understand. The technical jargon starts to get dry and confusing with each new standard and subpart.

We want to help you make sense of OSHA's regulations. Being an OSHA fall protection expert will ensure that you stay safe and compliant while working at height.

Fall protection doesn't have to be difficult. This blog explores common OSHA violations, as well as the components of fall protection systems to make sure you're fully prepared for your work day. It includes helpful tips from our brand new FAQ page so you can reach that expert OSHA status.

Making Sense of Fall Protection Systems

OSHA sets forth regulations for employers to ensure the safety of workers at heights. Specific requirements vary by situation. Across the board, workers on a walking-working surface 6 feet or more above a lower level need protection. This may include a guardrail system, safety net system, or personal fall arrest system.

Sounds simple enough, but what matters is the details. Let’s look at some of the main things you need to have to be compliant with OSHA rules.

Guardrail Systems

Guardrail systems are often best used in three particular applications. These are when working around holes, on ramps and runways, and around hoist areas. To prevent workers from falling, the top edge of the top rail must be 42 inches (give or take 3 inches) above the walking-working surface. Install midrails, screens, mesh, or solid panels midway to ensure complete protection.

Safety Nets

Sometimes, using a safety net makes the most sense. If so, install the nets as close as possible to the surface where employees are working. Never install them more than 30 feet below. Employers should also keep the fall area unobstructed. Conduct various safety tests to make sure the system functions adequately.

Personal Fall Arrest Systems

Workers also have the option of using a personal fall arrest system. They're one of the most popular forms of fall protection in construction safety. They have several components:

In our FAQ page, we address these systems more specifically. By detailing the purposes and functions of each PFAS component, you gain a better insight into this common form of protection. It's one thing to know the equipment options you have. But it's necessary (and crucial) to understand how your gear operates. This understanding is what keeps you safe and what makes your equipment last.

Choosing the Right System

Employers are responsible for assessing the risks their workers face. This is necessary when selecting the appropriate fall protection system for each application. This may involve one of the above systems, or it may involve a combination of all three. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to occupational safety. So, it’s important to identify and manage worksite hazards before any work begins.

Neglecting Fall Protection Is Risky Business

Fall protection is no joke. Work at height can be safe. But the risk of physical injury or death is high without proper safety precautions. In fact, of the 937 construction fatalities in 2015, 350 were fatal falls to a lower level. These 350 falls were preventable.

The risks don’t end there. OSHA gives steep penalties to employers who fail to follow their fall protection requirements.

OSHA’s penalty adjustments took effect on August 1, 2016. They rose an astounding 78 percent since their last change in 1990. Employers should expect annual increases to account for inflation. Under the new system, OSHA wants to convince employers to take safety seriously. They do this by making their penalties more of a force to be reckoned with.

As of January 13, 2017, OSHA penalties for rule violations are as follows:

Type of Violation

Maximum Penalty

Serious

Other-Than-Serious

Posting Requirements

$12,675 per violation

Failure to Abate

$12,675 per day beyond the abatement date

Willful or Repeated

$126,749 per violation

Check out our FAQ resource for a quick run-down of the OSHA and ANSI standards that apply to fall protection. Our easy-to-read list takes the hassle out of remembering what standards you need to know about.

Types of OSHA Violations

With so many categories of violations, it can be tricky to figure out what’s what. Let’s break it down so you can understand each of them.

De Minimis Violations

De minimis violations aren’t listed on the chart above because they have no fine attached to them. This category represents technical violations that have no impact on the health and safety of workers. Employers receive a verbal warning for de minimis violations. They also become part of an inspection file.

Serious Violations

Serious violations occur due to passivity. For example, an employer may or should know of a situation that has a high probability of injury or death. They receive a serious violation if they do not remedy it. Penalties can be up to $12,675 per violation. But inspectors may adjust the fines. This depends on the seriousness of the violation, employer history, and other factors.

Examples of serious violations include failing to provide adequate fall protection. Remember: guardrails or personal fall arrest systems are required at great heights.

Other-Than-Serious Violations

Other-than-serious violations are issues that wouldn’t normally cause serious injury or death. Unlike de minimis violations, these relate to job and employee health and safety. What is an example of an other-than-serious violation? A missing guardrail at a height where a fall would likely result in a mild sprain or abrasion.

Posting Requirements Violations

Posting requirement violations are more self-explanatory. They are failures to post required documentation and safety regulations. Like serious violations, the largest possible penalty for this category is $12,675. These are at the discretion of the inspector.

Willful Violations

Willful violations are the most serious category of rule violation. The greatest penalty is a steep $126,749 per violation. Intentional violations of OSHA rules or situations receive these penalties. This is because the violations show blatant disregard for the safety of workers.

Repeated Violations

Employers cited for identical or very similar violations more than once can receive a repeated violation from an OSHA inspector. The top fine for this category is $126,749 per violation.

Failure to Abate

If you receive a citation, address it fully and in a timely fashion. Employers who lag may receive citations for failure to abate. These carry a penalty of $12,675 per day beyond the abatement date.

And the Top Fall Protection Violations Are…

As mentioned above, fall protection topped OSHA’s list of most cited violations again in 2016. A total of 6,906 violations were issued for fall protection, down from 2015. About one in five violations cited in 2016 related to the Fall Protection standard. This is much higher than the other categories. It indicates that employers must take greater precautions to address hazards and prevent falls.

Some areas had more problems than others. Be extra diligent if any of these top 5 cited sections are relevant to your worksite:

  1. Residential Construction – 3,911 violations
  2. Unprotected Sides/Edges – 1,278 violations
  3. Roofing Work on Low-Slope Roofs – 625 violations
  4. Steep Roofs – 523 violations
  5. Holes and Skylights – 154 violations

Protect Your Workers and Your Bottom Line

OSHA’s overhaul means that inspections will be more rigorous. Employers can expect to see increases of many violations. The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of violations, and this comes through knowledge.

These stricter standards should be made known and followed in your workplace, but they aren't meant to scare you. Employers have the responsibility to ensure workers remain safe. They must make a dedicated effort to stay aware of changing standards and best practices in the industry. But they don't have to do it alone.

Medsafe offers a variety of resources to help employers and workers use the best fall protection practices with the right equipment. Our technical and services capabilities, safety blog, and FAQ page are designed with safety in mind to meet the needs of your workplace. We also don't underestimate the importance of regular training and inspection.

Fall protection should be a high priority for employers with workers at heights. Familiarizing yourself with OSHA's latest standards is just one step you can take to work safer.

There are many other helpful resources available to you – so use them! Invest in training and inspect equipment regularly too, to ensure it’s up to standards. Do your part to protect your workers and your wallet.