It only takes a second. Someone is going about their business and a quick distraction causes them to trip, maybe fall. On a flat surface, this could mean nothing; but near an unprotected edge, falls can pose serious risks and result in broken materials, injuries, or even fatalities. In 2014, falls accounted for 40% of fatalities in construction.
Some risks can’t always be avoided, but they can be managed by putting preventative measures in place. Trips and stumbles may still happen, but railings will significantly reduce the danger to your workers. OSHA standards require employers to use some combination of guardrail systems, safety nets, or harnesses at their worksites.
Passive vs. Active Systems
There are instances where guardrails or nets would interfere with work that needs to be done, and in those cases, personal fall arrest systems should be used. The harnesses used in these situations are active systems and require deliberate effort by workers, so it’s still possible for mistakes to happen. Using passive systems as opposed to active systems can alleviate some of these issues.
Railings are passive systems that are tall enough to stop falls around dangerous areas. Not everyone wants to build permanent structures or knows where and when they will need railings in the future. Portable railing systems offer flexibility and protection for changing needs and active worksites.
Read on to learn about current OSHA standards, when railings are a good solution, and options and examples where each could be used.
OSHA Railing Guidelines
OSHA lays out the basic regulations for guarding floors and holes for general industries in standard 1910.23 and for fall protection for the construction industry in standard 1926.502. Here, we give a summary of guardrails from both standards where they overlap, covering both permanent and portable railing systems:
- Railings should have a vertical height of 42 inches +/- 3 inches above walking or working level.
- The railings should consist of top rail, intermediate rail, and posts. Intermediate rails are roughly halfway between the top rail and floor, and posts should be placed within 19 inches of each other.
- Guardrails must be able to withstand a force of 200 pounds from any direction, especially when applied in the downward direction at the top 2 inches of the railing.
- Surfaces of the guardrail should be smooth. Rough surfaces could causes injury by scraping hands or catching clothing, leading to potential falls.
- Optional: toeboards. Toeboards prevent materials from falling over the edge and landing on a worker on a lower level.
To clarify, “guardrails” does not mean “handrails,” which are different. Handrails are typically seen by stairs and are mounted to the wall or other support with brackets. They can also be shorter than guardrails, between 30 and 34 inches tall instead of 42 inches tall.
These guidelines can be a bit confusing, as some existing guardrails don’t meet the standards. Previous rules did allow railings of 36 inches, and some of these, if they are permanent structures, have been “grandfathered” in and are still considered acceptable. In the interest of worker safety, keep to current OSHA standards.
Situations that Require Protection
Most simply, any unprotected sides and edges over 6 feet in height require protection. Such edges could be a hole in the floor or an open-edge platform or walkway. Roofs are another obvious site. Any work done on the roof – including maintaining equipment and any roofing activities on both steep or low-slope roofs – requires protection. Railing systems can also be used to block off dangerous areas, such as inactive machinery or hoisting areas.
Industries Requiring Portable Railing Systems
No industry is excluded from falls, as they are both a work and environmental hazard. These situations arise in a number of general industries, including but not limited to:
- School campuses
- Commercial spaces, such as in stairways
- Retail buildings
- Government buildings
- Public use areas like libraries, parks, or trails
- Distribution centers and manufacturing sites where facility safety is a concern
Some industries, however, have extra regulations. Construction, agriculture and maritime sites are not included in general industry regulations because of their unique hazards (carrying heavy tools, blocked field of view, etc.) and therefore have different requirements. While we cover some general concerns, always be sure to look up specifics for your industry.
Types of Portable Systems
Portable systems meet all the above guidelines and offer benefits over permanent systems. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that portable systems come in modular pieces. They can be as large or small as required and can be moved around as needs change. For example, they are used on temporary construction sites, or as semi-permanent guardrails that get shifted when workers need access to different areas. They also don’t require major installation, like welding or drilling, making self-installation possible for those industries outside of construction.
Portable systems consist of the post, rail section, and pins that secure the pieces together. Finishes, while always smooth, can be different colors to either blend in with the building’s aesthetic or stand out as a caution. Dakota Safety offers 4 options:
- Non-Penetrating Guardrails. Permanent railings need to be securely attached to the building and additional installations can be costly. Basic portable systems are non-penetrating rails that use sturdy post bases to withstand the minimum 200-pound force requirement (and can often withstand much higher weights).
- Architectural Guardrails. Architectural guardrails slope backwards instead of standing vertically. These are ideal for use on roofs, as they keep workers further away from edges and minimize the amount of rails visible from the ground.
- Collapsible Guardrails. Collapsible guardrails are great solutions for when you need the rails out of the way, but would like to put them back exactly where they were. These rails can fold flat while keeping the base in place.
- D300 Series Guardrails. The D300 series was developed by the University of Minnesota. U of MN wanted a 50% safety factor over and above what is required by OSHA. The D300 is tested to withstand 300 pounds and has 3 horizontal rails with vertical rails every 6 feet.
Know Your Worksite
We understand that OSHA regulations can be confusing and that it can be difficult to determine exactly where you need guardrails. As such, we offer site visits to give advice on guardrail types and placements, as well as to assure OSHA regulations are being met.
Whether you have small or large sites, temporary or long-term projects, portable railing systems with simple installation instructions and customizable offerings can keep your workplace safe.