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The Guardian Fall Team Blog

This week's update is the first of a two-part article that was prompted by a question from a customer. What at first seemed like a straight-forward question with a simple answer turned into anything but. As a matter of fact, finding the complete answer lead me all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court! It’s a long one, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy The Case of the Lawless Lanyard.

A Common Story.

 

An OSHA inspector shows up to a jobsite for an inspection. During the course of the inspection, he informs the supervisor that the lanyards the crew are using are not OSHA compatible because they allow 48 inches of deceleration versus the OSHA-required 42 inches. Since the lanyards are the only ones available to the crew, the supervisor is forced to shut down operations until they receive a letter from the manufacturer stating the lanyards supersede OSHA 1926.502(d)(16)(iv), which states:

  
[Personal fall arrest systems, when stopping a fall, shall] bring an employee to a complete stop and limit maximum deceleration distance an employee travels to 3.5 feet (1.07 m)

 

Clear enough, right? OSHA says 42 inches deceleration distance, the lanyard has up to 48 inches of deceleration, case closed; the lanyard is not OSHA compliant and therefore work must stop.

OK, maybe you haven’t heard this exact story, but in fact, we have. And because we feel an educated workforce is a safer workforce, over the next two weeks we will delve into this single question, tearing it apart bit-by-bit in order to understand why I’m even taking the time to address such a seemingly cut-and-dried situation.

Let’s - for the sake of argument - take the situation at face value. In pure Caesarian style, an inspector came, saw the lanyards, and shut down operations. Not Vini, Vidi, Vici, but, Vini, Vidi, Clausi  (I came, I saw, I closed). How could this happen? Doesn’t the manufacturer know OSHA regulations? Don’t they know what can happen during an inspection? How could they build a non-OSHA-compliant lanyard? The fact is, they haven’t. The lanyards that allow a 48 inch deceleration distance are fully compliant and there is no justification to shut down the jobsite. Before I explain how the lanyards are perfectly compliant regarding OSHA, allow me to explain why the deceleration distance increased from 42 to 48 inches, which of course will explain why the lanyards even exist in the first place.

Can We Get A Consensus?

42_vs_48_1-01.jpg

 

But first, a slight digression… It’s important to know that OSHA relies on outside “consensus standards” to model their technical regulations, and do not create the standards themselves. A consensus standard is created by organizations made up of engineers whose technical expertise in an area is used to create a “standard” of performance that manufacturers can use as a guideline when developing and manufacturing equipment. For fall protection, the most prominent standards body is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is a non-profit organization made up of engineers and other industry experts who regularly review and tweak current manufacturing and design specifications with an eye toward continually improving safety. Testing is ongoing, and if changes are deemed necessary, ANSI updates the affected standard and issues a new standard.

Keep in mind that while ANSI’s standards are not legally binding, since OSHA relies on ANSI (and other standards organizations) to build their regulations, manufacturers like Guardian are wise to look to ANSI as the performance benchmark during R&D and their own independent testing. As you might imagine, changing these standards (and the subsequent OSHA regulations that rely on these standards) is slow - very slow.

 

Testing 1...2...3...

 42_vs_48_2.jpg

This brings us to our “problematic” lanyards. Earlier ANSI standards required that the energy-absorbing component of lanyards have a maximum deceleration distance of 42 inches and Maximum Arrest Force (MAF) of 900 lbs., meaning that at no time during deceleration could the arrest force surpass 900 lbs. However, subsequent testing found “occasional statistical outlier[s]” where the arrest force peaked above 900 lbs. What to do? Given the design of the energy absorbers, the simplest change was to spread out the arrest forces over a longer time (distance) to keep arrest forces under 900 lbs. Thus, six inches was added to the deceleration distance in order to give energy absorbers more time to work and keep arrest forces lower. In addition, ANSI created a new measurement, the Average Arrest Force (AAF). The AAF is the average of all force data points over 500 lbs. during dynamic tests. With the additional six inches of deceleration distance, manufacturers were better able to keep average arrest forces under the 900 lbs. peak requirement, and in doing so, made energy absorbing lanyards safer overall for workers.

Now you know why the deceleration distance changed from 42 to 48 inches, but why did the OSHA inspector issue a citation and ask for a clarifying document from the manufacturer about it? The first part of that question is fairly easy to understand, the second part, not so much.

A citation was issued because OSHA regulations have yet to directly reflect the most-current ANSI manufacturing standards. In other words, technology is outpacing governmental regulations. Does that surprise you? But there is a hitch, and in fact, OSHA predicted this might happen, and issued an earlier statement regarding the ever-moving goalpost of consensus standards.

In 2004, OSHA released an update to 29 CFR 1910 called, “Updating OSHA Standards Based on National Consensus Standards.”  In part, OSHA states, it, “…has used consensus standards [e.g. ANSI] extensively as a basis for its mandatory safety and health standards….” Regarding referencing outdated standards: “Employers need to research the referenced consensus standards, identify and analyze any updates to the standards, and determine how they apply to their workplaces.” And finally, “OSHA believes that it would be far more productive…to update its standards to reflect advances in consensus standard development…that are found in today’s workplaces.” In a nutshell, this means: OSHA relies on outside organizations for its standards; employers must keep on top of updates to those standards; OSHA is looking forward, not backward. This creates a sort of limbo for employers who find themselves between the stated OSHA regulations and current versions of standards which may be a decade or more newer than those OSHA originally adopted.

De What??

To address the discrepancy between stated regulations and current consensus standards, OSHA issues “de minimis” (a violation that has no direct relationship to safety or health) notices to employees who do not meet the letter of the regulation, but are, in fact, better protecting their employees by adhering to updated consensus standards. I’m with you – this sounds odd; to seemingly penalize an employer for exceeding the letter of the regulation. Odd it may be, but that’s the way it is. In fact, when you dig into the regulations even deeper, you’ll see that a de minimis violation is appropriate in cases where:

“An employer’s workplace as at the ‘state of the art’ which is technically beyond the requirements of the applicable standard and provides equivalent or more effective employee safety or health protection.”

Bear in mind a de minimis notice does not result in a fine or any punitive action, but still, it seems strange to get the notice in the first place.

This example of an inspector issuing a notice for a “safer” fall protection solution because it does not meet the letter of the regulation opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions: Why issue a violation at all if the inspector knows an employer is ahead of OSHA? Did the inspector know of the caveats that allow an employer to use more advanced products (there is doubt about this since he referred to only the 1926.502 regulation)? How can a jobsite be shut down for an inspector’s lack of knowledge in their supposed area of expertise? Of the first two questions we’ll never know the answer for sure. But the last question is one we can know.

That answer however, is a tale for another time. We’ve covered some pretty good ground in understanding the major cause of the conflict. Next time, I’ll answer that last question for you: given the above circumstance, can the OSHA inspector simply shut down your jobsite? If you think you know the answer, send us a message on Facebook. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


Until next time, be safe up there!

Click HERE to continue to Part II