Guide to OSHA Guardrails Compliance

Temporary guardrail in use
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Guide to OSHA Guardrails Compliance

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The information contained on this page is for promotional and informational purposes only. All equipment should be used by trained professional tradesmen who have been trained how to use the equipment described on this page, and understand the risks of their work. PowerPak assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions in the use or misuse of any product purchased. In no event shall PowerPak be liable for any direct, special, indirect, consequential, or incidental damages or any damages whatsoever, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other torts, arising out of or in connection with the use of this information or the contents of this page. PowerPak reserves the right to make additions, deletions, or modifications to the contents on this page at any time without prior notice.

Guardrails are one of those things that you don't really think about when they're there, but when they aren't, you suddenly realize how important they are. That's why it is critical that installed guardrails actually work.
Having faulting guardrails can often be more dangerous than not having guardrails at all because it gives workers something to trust that they shouldn't. All across the country, companies are constructing guardrails that don't meet specifications. As a result, all across the country, workers are getting hurt.
The OSHA guidelines for guardrails are very specific, but they aren't difficult to follow. If you are going to take the time to build a faulty guardrail system, you might as well take the time to make a guardrail system that meets the OSHA specification.
So today, we're breaking down guardrail systems for you, explaining when they are needed, what specs you need to meet, and some alternative options if you just can't make it work. Let's dive in.

When Is a Guard Rail System Needed

You'll hear the term "Leading Edge" thrown around a lot. What OSHA means by leading edge, is simply the edge of a surface that a worker could potentially fall from. When you think of leading edges, the first examples that come to mind involve working at heights. So, commercial roofing, building framing, and scaffolding work. But there are also ground-level leading edges. Think of an open manhole, trenches, wells, and any other holes in the ground.
Ground-level leading edges often fall under a more specific category with its own set of regulations. For example, entering a manhole is considered a confined space, and you would follow confined space entry procedures for that leading edge.
So, the rule is, if there is a six-foot or higher drop from the leading edge, then a fall protection system needs to be in place. There are a few different fall protection options you can go with, but the one we are talking about here is guardrails. Six feet, remember that number. It's not very high, but it's enough that they could get hurt if workers fall.

Guard Rail Standards

The total height of the guard rails needs to be between 39 inches to 45 inches from the ground it is installed on. The number you are aiming for is 42 inches, and in some special cases, the guardrail system may need to be taller than 45 inches.
The example OSHA gives for when the guard rail system may need to exceed 45 inches is if workers are wearing stilts. In that situation, the guardrail system must be raised the same height as the stilts. So, workers are using 30 inch stilts, the guardrail needs to be 72 inches tall (42 inches plus 30 inches).
The guardrails need to include a mid rail halfway between the top rail and the ground, at around the 21" mark for a standard height rail. OSHA gives you some flexibility on this mid rail. You could install a screen or mesh instead of a mid rail. Balusters or vertical support beams are also acceptable. If you decide to pursue any alterative option other than the traditional mid rail, you just need to ensure that the guardrail system does not have any opening 19" or larger.
All installed guard rails must meet a minimum load rating of 200 pounds. To weight test a guardrail, 200 pounds of force is applied to the top railing in either an outward or downward direction. Any section of the top railing needs to be able to support that load without failing. Also, the top railing cannot deflect below the 39” minimum railing height requirement, even under load.
The mid rail needs to be able to withstand an outward or downward force of 150 pounds without failure. Alternatives to mid rails, like mesh or balusters, are also required to meet the same weight ratings.

Build Your Own Guardrail

If constructing your own guardrail system, OSHA provides some suggested building materials that are commonly used to achieve the load rating requirements. When constructing a traditional guardrail with a mid rail, the posts and top railing should be made out of construction grade 2x4’s with a minimum stress grade of 1500 lb-ft/in(2), and the mid rail can be made of 1x6 lumber. The posts should not be more than 8ft apart.
The OSHA non-mandatory guidelines do not provide suggested hardware for fastening the guardrails to the ground. The Safety Boot guardrail system is designed for this specific purpose, and when paired with the material listed above and properly fastened to the substrate, this bracket system makes it very easy to meets the OSHA requirements.
If you plan on welding a metal railing system together, OSHA suggests using schedule 40 pipes at a minimum of one and a half inches. If you're using structural steel angles, they should be a minimum of two inches by two inches by three-eighths inch. The post cannot be placed further than 8ft apart with either metal option.
None of these building materials are required, you can technically build your guard rails out of anything you want, but they must meet the OSHA height, coverage, and weight specifications.

No Drill Guardrails Options

After reading that last section, you might be stressed about how much time building your guard rail system will take and the damage created by fastening the temporary guardrail system into your work site substrates.
Well, in a lot of cases, you can use temporary guardrail systems that are faster to set up and do not require you to drill any holes.
We offer a stand-alone temporary guardrail option that consists of weighted bases and metal rails that are pinned in. The bases are weighted and are made of painted cast iron, so they do not need to be drilled into the ground. Each base has four slots for rods. This allows you to set up multiple rails in different directions if needed.
You can add toe rails or gates if needed and special order specific colors. This system meets OSHA's guardrail requirements, and two workers can set up over 170ft of this system in less than an hour. It's a system that is designed to significantly cut down on man hours. This system is ideal for protecting long runs of lead edges, like on commercial roofs or large-scale projects.
You could opt for a clamp guardrail system on work sites with parapets. These giant clamps can be attached to the parapet, with a vertical rod that have slots for 2x4s. Again, there is no drilling and these all meet OSHA requirements for work site guardrails.
And, of course, for ground-level work, we offer manhole guardrail boxes. These are a little different because they aren't designed to meet the OSHA guardrail requirements we've discussed. These are more specifically for preventing anyone from accidentally walking into an open manhole. So, strict weight requirements aren't as necessary as high visibility, and that's why they are bright yellow with flag holders.

Alternative Options

When working near a leading edge, guardrails are just one option. There are many situations where guardrail installation is either not feasible or impractical. OSHA allows the use of safety nets as a fall protection measure. Similar to guardrails, there are very strict and specific safety net specifications that must be followed. In our line of work, we don’t see many projects that call for safety nets for fall protection.
The other fall protection option is fall-resistant systems like SRD and lanyards. In situations where there is a leading edge and guardrails are not possible, workers can wear a three-part fall protection system. The three parts consist of the worker wearing a full body harness connected to an arresting device such as an SRD or lanyard, which is clipped onto an anchorage point with a 5,000-pound weight rating.
Most of the projects that PowerPak helps supply either require guardrails or fall-resistant systems.

Don’t Cut Corners

The best advice we can give to any company that is dealing with leading-edge hazards is to not cut corners with height safety. It's a costly mistake. Heights-related standards always end up on OSHA’s top 10 most cited every year. And every year, OSHA writes up millions of dollars of Apart from the steep fines that could bankrupt a company, cutting corners puts workers' lives at risk. One mistake could cost someone their livelihood or life. There are a lot of resources available to help you make your worksite safe and compliant, and PowerPak is one of them.
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