Today, OSHA published a new final rule on slip, trip and fall hazardsin general industry. The rule, which runs a stunning 518 pages in the Federal Register, is titled “Walking-Working Surfaces and Personal Protective Equipment (Fall Protection Systems).” The final rule takes effect January 17, 2017, ending a long-running rulemaking that last involved a proposed rule in 2010 and comments and hearing through 2011. By OSHA’s estimate, the rule will cover “112 million workers at seven million worksites.”

According to an OSHA press release, the rule “updates” general industry regulations for preventing slips, trips, and falls and also adds a new section on personal protective equipment, including requirements for using personal fall protection systems. OSHA says that the new rule will create more consistency between its regulations for general industry and for construction by allowing employers in general industry to choose from a range of accepted fall protection systems, including personal fall protection, which it has allowed in construction since 1994. The agency also claims that the rule contains simpler language, greater flexibility, and more performance-based provisions than current requirements.

The rule eliminates the existing mandate to use guardrails as a primary fall protection method. Instead, employers can choose from six accepted options, including (a) traditional guardrail systems, (b) safety net systems, (c) ladders safety systems, (d) positioning systems, (e) travel restraint systems, and (f) personal fall arrest systems.

The rule also introduces new ladder safety requirements. Ladders must be capable of supporting their maximum intended load, while mobile ladder stands and platforms must be capable of supporting four times their maximum intended load. Furthermore, each ladder must be inspected before each work shift to identify defects that could cause injury.

OSHA claims that the rule will “prevent 29 fatalities and more than 5,842 injuries” each year. It states that the rule will cost about $305 million but provide benefits (in avoiding injuries and deaths) worth $614 million, for a net benefit of $309 million.

The safety agency notes that other key changes are: “allowing employers to use rope descent systems up to 300 feet above a lower level; prohibiting the use of body belts as part of a personal fall arrest system; and requiring worker training on personal fall protection systems and fall equipment.” In the rule, OSHA says that it “believes that many employers already are in compliance with many provisions in the final rule; therefore, they should not have significant problems implementing it.”

One big question is whether the new Congress and Trump administration will take steps to undo this rule, among others. The incoming administration has not named a Secretary of Labor nor addressed the specific issues in this rule. However, during his campaign, President-elect Trump suggested that he would extensively review – and often amend or reverse – regulations and executive orders issued by President Obama. In addition, U.S. House Republicans sent letters to federal agencies this week to “caution” them “against finalizing pending rules and regulations in the [Obama] Administration’s last days,” promising congressional scrutiny and possible action to reverse such regulations. While it seems unlikely that today’s OSHA rule will be a high priority for early action, it remains uncertain how the new leadership in Washington will respond to this and other regulations.

The publication of the new rule is a good opportunity for companies to review their existing fall protection and safety programs, policies, and training. For guidance on how the new rule may impact your operations or assistance in updating policies to comply with rule, please contact Avi Meyerstein or Amy Wachs.