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In December, OSHA announced a three-month extension of its temporary enforcement guidelines for residential fall protection. That marked the fourth consecutive short-term extension of the guidelines since the new fall-protection rule — generally referred to as Subpart M — was fully implemented in September 2011. The guidelines are now set to expire on March 15. (Builders who have grown comfortable with those repeated extensions should remember that the fall-protection rules themselves are still very much in effect — the temporary enforcement guidelines simply hold out the possibility of mitigated penalties for builders who have made good-faith efforts to comply.)

This latest extension will probably benefit some builders who are still struggling to comply with the rule. But the evident need for yet another extension also lends credence to what critics of Subpart M have been saying all along: that the rule is too complicated and difficult to use effectively on the job site.

Layered protection and a 15-foot limit. Fortunately, there’s reason to hope that an easier-to-follow version of Subpart M may be in the offing. On December 7 — at about the same time that OSHA was announcing the latest enforcement-guideline extension — NAHB delivered a 40-page petition to the agency, asking it to reopen and amend the standard itself. In an accompanying letter, the association urged OSHA to adopt “a layered, risk-based approach to fall protection.”

Among other matters, the NAHB proposal calls for a reexamination of the working height above a lower level that triggers the need for fall protection. NAHB safety expert Rob Matuga suggests that the 6-foot height limit in the current federal rule hasn’t worked very well. “We know from talking to people that it’s difficult to get them to take the 6-foot distance seriously. They just don’t see it as much of a hazard,” he says.

Instead, the NAHB proposal calls for a trigger height of 15 feet for certain tasks. That figure, Matuga notes, was not chosen arbitrarily: Residential builders in California — where a state-administered OSHA standard is in effect — already use a 15-foot limit, as does OSHA’s current federal rule for steel erection.

Come together. Sometime this winter, according to Matuga, NAHB and OSHA will likely meet to discuss the proposal. And while any actual changes to the rule probably won’t be finalized for years — if they happen at all — the two organizations have successfully teamed up on the same issue in the past. (NAHB, in fact, spoke out in favor of scrapping the old interim fall-protection rule in favor of Subpart M.)

“If we can make the standard easier to comply with, that will be better for everyone,” Matuga says. — J.V.