According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 335 construction workers died from job-related falls in 1995. That was the year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) "Safety Standards for Fall Protection in the Construction Industry" (29 CFR 1926.500, Subpart M) went into effect.

This year, as of January 1, enforcement of the fall protection rule changed. Body belts are no longer acceptable as part of a personal-fall-arrest system for construction workers, and locking snap hooks must be used in personal fall arrest systems.

"OSHA has taken these steps to increase the level of protection for construction employees against injuries from falls, one of the major hazards in the industry," said Charles N. Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. According to OSHA, employees who fall while wearing a body belt do not receive the same level of protection they would if wearing a full body harness. When a safety belt is used, the forces that stop a fall concentrate on a worker's waist and lower back-in some cases causing serious neck, back, or internal injury. Additionally, OSHA says studies indicate that people suspended in body belts cannot tolerate suspension long enough to allow for retrieval. The belts, however, can still be used for restraint and positioning.

Put into effect February 6, 1995, OSHA's fall-protection rule is designed to protect employees from falling off, onto, or through working levels and to protect employees from being hit by falling objects. The rule calls for fall protection systems and associated equipment to be used when fall hazards cannot be engineered out of the workplace.

Areas or activities where fall protection is required include: ramps, runways, and other walkways; excavations; hoist areas; holes; form work and reinforcing steel; leading edge work; unprotected sides and edges; roofing work; precast concrete erection; wall openings; residential construction; and other walking/working surfaces. The rule requires construction employers to provide fall protection whenever their employees are exposed to a fall of 6 ft or more. Protection also has to be provided if a worker is in danger of falling into dangerous equipment. The rule does not include construction workers inspecting, investigating, or assessing workplace conditions prior to actual start of work or after all work has been completed.

OSHA has taken these positions on the use of body belts in certain situations: With respect to the use of body belts in aerial lifts, the policy is that if the system is rigged as part of a positioning device body belt system that limits free fall to 2 ft, belts may be used.

With respect to the use of body belts covered under OSHA's general industry standard for electric power generation, transmission and distribution, which adopts the construction standard on this point, the policy is the same; that is, if there is no free fall potential in excess of 2 ft, the workers may continue to use body belts.

With respect to the use of body belts during steel erections, all steel erection activities are excluded from subpart M (the construction fall protection standard).