No matter how many times we, as safety professionals, explain certain regulatory requirements, the same question inevitably arises: “Yeah, but does it apply to me?” It comes in a few slight variations, such as: “But we’re [insert trade name here], how does that apply?” or “We do [insert type of work here], do they really expect us to be able to follow that?”
The answer, simply put, is yes, if you fall within federal OSHA’s jurisdiction, the rules we discuss here apply to you. It doesn’t matter how unique you believe your situation is, there are others with similar, if not the exact same situations. And don’t get excited if you are covered by a state plan rather than by federal OSHA because state plans need to be approved by OSHA and must be equal to or more stringent than the federal regulations.
Now, that being said, are there exceptions? Yes, but for the time being, let’s put those aside. In order to know what the rules are that apply to you, you need to do one simple thing: research. And that research begins with consulting the appropriate OSHA regulations. However, for many of you, therein lies the problem:
WHICH regulations apply to me? Is what I do construction, demolition, or maintenance?
Some industries are clear-cut, others take a bit of digging to determine, while others may be governed by more than one set of standards. So how is that determined?
Well, first, let’s understand how the standards work. First, you have your General Industry standards (29 CFR 1910). These standards are the ones that apply to industries that don’t have their own set of regulations. The 1910 is your foundation and can be applied to any workplace unless a more specific regulation overrides it. For instance, if you work in warehousing, there is no separate regulation, so the 1910 applies. Manufacturing? 1910. However, there is a separate regulation for Agriculture (29 CFR 1928), one for Construction (29 CFR 1926), and a few for Maritime (29 CFR 1915 through 1919). So, if you can’t find a specific one for your industry, then it’s the 1910.
That being said, what if your industry isn’t so clear cut? Well, first you need to evaluate what it is you do. Sometimes, you may do things that fall into different categories. For instance, an HVAC company has a branch that goes out and does new installations of rooftop equipment – crane lifts, rigging, cutting holes in roofs, wiring, etc. They also have a division that goes to the same facilities (or others) and maintains equipment – runs tests, changes filters, replaces bad parts, etc. The first example would be bound by construction regulations while the second would be bound by general industry regulations. In this case, it’s not the industry the company is in that determines the applicable laws, but the work they do and it is their responsibility to know which applies when. As an example, their construction division will be bound by a 6’ fall protection rule while their maintenance division will be bound by a 4’ rule and if they don’t know that difference, they are going to potentially be non-compliant. A company like this may choose to simplify things for their employees and go by the stricter of the two regulations, but they are not required to by law. In the end, while a much more detailed breakdown can be found here, construction is broadly defined as “construction, alteration, and/or repair, including painting and decorating.” There is no clear definition of maintenance, but usually refers to keeping a structure in proper condition and keeping equipment in its existing state. As discussed in the link above, factors of complexity and size could come in to play as well.
Keep in mind that your research may not end here. If you are in construction, the regulations may refer you back to the General Industry standards. Sections in any of the regulations may refer you to other incorporated standards, such as ANSI or the NFPA. In addition, oftentimes standards give guidance, but leave the method of compliance completely up to you. Or, there could be an applicable Letter of Interpretation. These are letters sent in to OSHA by companies like yours that seek clarification on regulations. The answers that OSHA gives stand as strong as the regulations themselves. Luckily, for these, OSHA’s website provides a good searchable database. The point, though, is that you need to make sure that the answer you’ve gotten is complete.
But what if there is no answer? Does that mean I have no rules to follow? No. Lucky for OSHA, they have what is called the General Duty clause and it reads that employers are required to provide a place of employment that is “free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” In other words, even if a standard doesn’t exist, you are responsible, as an employer to make sure your workplace is safe and if you don’t, you can still be cited by OSHA. It’s a catch-all and they use it often.
Just as important as which set of standards apply to you is the question of which subparts, in particular, apply. The answer is simple, any subpart that has anything to do with your work applies. You can’t look inside those regulations and determine that you will follow some, but not others. If a section applies to your work, it must be followed. Remember, these are federal laws, not suggestions. Choosing to be selective about which you want to follow serves no purpose but to run you afoul of the law and put the lives of your employees in danger.
John Braun, CSP, CHST