OSHA’s General Industry Walking-Working Surface and Low-Slope Roof Access


It’s been over a year now since OSHA updated and revised the General Industry Subpart D-Walking Working Surfaces regulation. This was a significant revision aimed at preventing trips, slips and falls to the same level and lower levels. This revision included revisions or new provisions on portable ladders, fixed ladders and fall protection systems. All employers in the general industry scope of work should review this Subpart D to do their best to align with this regulation and mitigate the related walking-working surfaces risk factors in their business.

I’ve had a few phone calls within the last year from businesses that were advised by third parties that they now had options for roofing work so they could follow less-stringent regulations than they had to prior to this revised general industry walking-working surface regulation. The first—and probably the most important—element in this particular discussion is: Is it “roofing work” or is it simply accessing the roof to do maintenance on equipment on the roof? This general industry walking-working surface standard does not apply to construction activities. So, any business conducting roofing activities or related construction work will need to conform to the OSHA Construction Standards specifically- CFR 29 1926 Subpart M-Fall Protection.

If a business / employer (or if the employer hires an outside employer to access the roof) accesses their establishment’s roof for various maintenance activities, and it is a low sloped roof, then the OSHA general industry walking-working surface Subpart D standard would apply. The specific standard that would apply here would be 1910.28(b)(13)-Work on low-slope roofs. OSHA has a specific definition for low-sloped roofs as follows: “Means a roof that has a slope less than or equal to a ratio of 4 in 12 (vertical to horizontal)”. So, if the low-slope roof is to be accessed for some kind of maintenance work (not roof repair or re-roofing work), and there is no parapet wall of at least 39” in height along the roof edge, OSHA stipulates what must be done for fall prevention in paragraphs 1910.28(b)(13)(i) through (iii) (A and B). These paragraphs basically state the following (see the OSHA standard and these paragraphs for the exact wording):

  • When work is performed less than 6’ from the edge, a guardrail system, safety net system, travel restraint system or personal fall arrest system must be utilized.
  • When work is performed at least 6’ but less than 15’ from the roof the guardrail system, net, restraint or personal fall arrest system must be used.  Although if the work is both infrequent and temporary a “designated area” may be used. OSHA defines “Designated area” in this standard as “a distinct portion of a walking-working surface delineated by a warning line in which employees may perform work without additional fall protection”. It needs to be noted that OSHA does not define in this standard what determines work as “infrequent and temporary”.
  • When work is performed 15’ or more from the roof edge, the employer must: Protect each worker from falling by a guardrail system, net, travel restraint system or personal fall arrest system or a designated work area. The employer is not required to provide any fall protection provided the work is both infrequent and temporary. Also, the employer is to implement and enforce a work rule prohibiting workers from going within 15’ of the roof edge without using some form of fall protection (i.e. guardrail system, net, restraint or personal fall arrest system).

In this revised general industry standard Subpart D, OSHA defines a walking-working surface as follows: “Any horizontal or vertical surface on or through which an employee walks, works, or gains access to a work area or workplace location”. Thus all businesses / employers / employees should be mindful that this can encompass more than roofs, and may include maintenance work on the top surfaces of equipment or machines. And, if this walking-working surface such as equipment, machine surface is 4’ or more above a lower level, and has an unprotected side or edge the employer is required to provide a means to prevent falls to the lower level by either a guardrail system, safety net system, fall restraint or personal fall arrest system. Of course, options to these aforementioned fall protection provisions can be the use of a ladder or other appropriate elevated work platform (i.e. scaffold) and ensuring this equipment is in good working order, meets the appropriate OSHA standard, and affected employee(s) are adequately trained.