OSHA has been increasing its enforcement efforts in recent years, and the construction industry has been picking up much of the tab. A contractor’s best defense is to keep its crews safe onsite, keep its equipment up to date and up to code, and know its rights when OSHA inspectors come calling.

It’s important for contractors to become familiar with the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) as it pertains to fall protection, including the exceptions that exist to the provisions. The best form of fall protection safety and security against a possible OSHA citation is to set up guardrail or other fall prevention systems (such as personnel nets) when working 6 feet above ground, as well as keeping crews properly tied off at all times when on a roof. This means workers are harnessed with correct, properly maintained and regularly inspected equipment, tied off to approved anchor points, and using inspected and approved lines.

One of the exemptions to this general rule is the 50-foot exception, which seeks to prevent the danger of multiple lines crisscrossing a small workspace. An entire crew working with harnesses and lanyards occasionally can create a higher chance of injury than those safety devices prevent.

29 C.F.R. 1926.501(b)(10) covers the 50-foot exception and all the requirements a crew must meet to remain unharnessed while at work. Workers on low-slope roofs (a roof with a slope less than or equal to four in 12) with unprotected sides who are working 6 feet or more above the ground must be protected by either a guardrail system, safety net system, warning line system or a combination of those fall protection systems.

Another exception allowed by the CFR says that a crew may work freely without the tripping hazard of lines or guardrail setup  so long as the section of the roof the crew is working on is 50 feet or less in width. The code also clearly spells out that if a crew decides to utilize the 50-foot exception, it must provide safety monitors whenever workers are engaged in roofing activities.

Essentially, contractors have the right to work unharnessed on low-slope surfaces. These workspaces can even have unprotected edges as long as the crew supervisor provides safety monitors to oversee the area, and the workspace is no more than 50 feet wide. Despite this rule, contractors can get into trouble with OSHA regarding the 50-foot exception in two unique ways.

The first mistake occurs when a crew thinks it’s on a 50-foot-wide section of roof, but the area is not identified properly in accordance with OSHA regulations. The code requires this area to be delineated, separated or marked to show the crew that its workspace is limited to only one section. The safest course of action is for the site supervisor to flag the separate areas that his crew is to remain in while performing a specific task. So long as the crew stays within this marked area under the watchful eye of safety monitors, workers are free to remain unharnessed.

The second most often cited issue is when safety monitors are actually working on the roof alongside other crew members. The code is very strict when it comes to monitors. They must be on the same surface as the other workers, within visual sight, within hearing distance, and cannot be engaged in any work that can take their attention away from their duties as safety monitors. Contractors will be cited if OSHA shows up on the job and finds safety monitors operating nail guns, moving shingles or applying underlayment with the rest of the crew.

The 50-foot exception can be a great way to safely and swiftly get roofing work done if other forms of fall protection are not an option. Just remember the essential keys to safely and legally make use of the 50-foot exception: a low-slope roof; an area delineated, marked or flagged and no more than 50 feet wide; and safety monitors who are within sight and earshot of the rest of the crew, standing on the same surface and—most importantly—engaged in no roofing activities.      

Anthony Tilton is a construction law associate with Trent Cotney, P.A., Tampa, Fla. For more information, call (813) 579-3278 or email atilton@trentcotney.com.