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OSHA reinforces steel-erection standards

Sean Ryan

A two-story fall will put an ironworker in the hospital.

A 50- or 60-foot tumble will put that same ironworker in the grave.

National ironworker groups, preferring the first option, spent eight years demanding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration put the weight of enforcement behind its life-or-death steel-erection standards.

OSHA answered the call Wednesday by revising its standards (PDF), which were approved in 2001. The revision, which requires a deck or net no more than 30 feet below ironworkers, was part of the original rule an OSHA panel of industry representatives ironed out nine years ago, said Frank Migliaccio, a panel member and executive director of safety and health for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

But, before issuing the final rule, OSHA chose to let contractors disregard the 30-foot rule and avoid citations if ironworkers wear fall-protection gear. As Migliaccio pushed OSHA administrators to change the rule, he said, he heard about a worker who fell 60 feet and died in Las Vegas in October 2007 and another who fell 50 feet and died the next month in the same city.

“If they would’ve been decked over or netted over and planked,” Migliaccio said, “they would’ve fallen two stories instead of 50 feet.”

Furthermore, he said, the agency’s longtime interpretation of the 30-foot rule — that it was meant only to protect falling workers — was wrong.

“It wasn’t a fall protection,” he said, “it was for falling objects.”

The rule change should not affect many Wisconsin projects because contractors in the state generally build decks on each floor as they erect iron structures, said Dan Burazin, safety director for the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee Inc.

“Where there are decks, I have not seen that becoming an issue,” he said.

The OSHA announcement Wednesday also changes the requirements for when workers can use shear connectors — steel studs and bars, for example — to connect I-beams with concrete. Before the rule change, the connections could be made on the ground or in factories. But, according to the rule revision, the connections can only be made in place on a building structure.

A long-standing debate has raged over whether it is safer for workers to assemble parts on the ground or if the studs create trip hazards if they are installed before floor decks are put in, Burazin said.

Migliaccio said the ironworkers supported the change because it requires floor decks to be built before the connectors are installed, which removes the risk of falls. He said members of the ironworkers unions do the connecting work in the air and in fabrication facilities, so the change will not affect work opportunities for members.

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