Q. Are Guardrails Needed if Workers Wear Harnesses?

Under OSHA’s fall-protection rules, does using a fall-protection harness take precedence over other forms of fall protection? For example, if a deck contains openings that would ordinarily have to be covered or protected with guardrails, could workers rely on harnesses and an anchor system that had been previously set up on the roof, or would the openings still have to be covered or railed off?

A. Craig Firl, technical manager at Capital Safety in Red Wing, Minn., responds: To give employers some flexibility, OSHA typically allows more than one option to protect workers from falling. For example, OSHA 1926.501 allows the use of personal fall-arrest systems, covers, or guardrail systems to protect workers on a walking or working surface that contains holes or skylights, and where the person could fall more than 6 feet. It’s up to the employer to decide which approach — an “active” fall-arrest system or “passive” protection in the form of covers or guardrails — will work best in a given situation. In general, it’s best to use the approach that provides the highest overall level of safety and leaves the least room for error. If passive methods alone are sufficient to keep workers safe, there’s no reason to use a more complicated active system instead. But if some activities on a job site require the use of a personal fall-arrest system, it might be most practical to use harness systems throughout the job for the sake of consistency. In that case, added passive protection would not be necessary.