Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Slips, trips and falls account for the majority of accidents in a typical workplace.

That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year issued updated safety standards it says will prevent dozens of fatalities and more than 5,000 injuries annually.

The majority of the rules took effect in January, but if firms haven’t yet taken heed, they should familiarize themselves with the new requirements immediately.

“Employers are now just starting to get up to speed on this,” says Jennifer Stroschein, workplace safety editor at Neenah, Wisconsin-based J.J. Keller & Associates Inc., which provides safety and compliance consulting services.

As of May, half of the firm’s clients weren’t completely comfortable with the details and implications of the rules, and another 15 percent were completely unaware there were new rules, she says.

“There’s a very wide scope” to the change, says Michael Billok, a law partner in Bond, Schoeneck & King’s Albany office. “Employers are held responsible for knowing what the regulations require.”

Specifically, the new rules make the “general industry” fall-protection standards — those that apply to most businesses, from manufacturing to retail to offices — more aligned with the construction industry fall-protection standards, he says, noting proposals to revise this rule date back to the 1970s.

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As part of the updated guidelines, employers must conduct a hazard assessment for falls and determine whether personal equipment would abate that hazard, Stroschein says.

They must conduct regular inspections of every walking/working surface in the workplace, including floors, stairs, ladders, etc., to identify slip, trip and fall hazards, she says.

By May 17, they should have trained employees who use certain fall-protection systems and equipment. There are additional compliance deadlines going forward; see bit.ly/2h1VoGs.

Previously there was limited OSHA guidance for fall protection in non-construction businesses beyond providing guardrails for safety, says Thomas J. Bianco, a law partner at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone in Mineola.

The new guidelines allow flexibility as to the types of fall protection employers may use, taking into account “technology advances in modern fall-protection systems,” Bianco says. “Employers can make a determination on what they think is most feasible.”

The OSHA rules list 15 different areas that require fall protection, including unprotected sides and edges, he says; employers can use that as a checklist when inspecting their workplace.

“When looking for slip and trip hazards, employers should focus on latent or obvious hazards that would cause an employee to fall,” Billok says. Be alert to elevated areas or platforms, specifically any open area where an employee can fall more than 4 feet, he says.

Charles Hunt, chief operating officer of Massapequa Park-based Able Safety Consulting LLC, which provides OSHA compliance assistance and an online course in fall protection, says he hasn’t yet seen an uptick in demand for training locally due to the updated rules.

“Nationally we’ve gotten inquiries,” he says.

When evaluating an area, his team first assesses whether a hazard can be eliminated. If not, they attempt to engineer the hazard away. If that can’t be accomplished, a last resort is “mitigation control methods” — which he said are least effective — incorporating the use of personal protective equipment.

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Hunt said he’s not convinced the new rules will decrease fatalities, noting that giving people more options “adds to the confusion.”

But he said the training component is beneficial: “A specific training requirement was needed.”