When is a Roof Just a Roof?

REPRINTED from California Constructor May/June 2016 issue

It was not a matter of harmless semantics when Cal/OSHA threatened to shut a job down in Oakland during October, 2012. That job was a 12-story hospital near completion. The point of contention was access to and egress from the roof of the building.

Citations were issued and appealed. As the appeal progressed, it became clear that this was an issue challenging general contractors across the state. With sections of California law in conflict, the case would ultimately come down to the meaning of the terms “roof” and “uppermost floor”. 

Title 8 California Code of Regulations (CCR) sections 1629 and 1630 address methods of access and egress on construction jobs.  Section 1629 requires that two or more stairways be provided in buildings that are three stories or more. In steel-framed buildings, stairways are to extend to the uppermost floor planked or decked. It also requires that a safe means of access be provided to roof and attic areas. Section 1630 requires installation of construction hoists on structures more than 60 feet in height. Hoist landings must be provided at the uppermost floor and at least every three floors.

The Division’s interpretation was that the roof, when an elevator penthouse, electrical room or other structure is present, is the uppermost floor.

In this instance, Cal/OSHA took exception to the fact that there was one stairway to the roof. The second, temporary stair had been closed to allow for installation of air handling equipment. Three personnel hoists providing access to the roof had been removed to allow for installation of the skin of the building. 

At the time of the visit, four interior elevators and at least two stairways provided access to all floors including the uppermost floor. 

The general contractor was at a loss. The building couldn’t be finished without removing the temporary forms of roof access yet inspectors insisted the temporary access couldn’t be removed while construction was still in progress.

Was there a way out of this Catch 22? The answer to that question would affect contractors across the state.

California Building Codes do not require an elevator to the roof of buildings, and only one stairway, if any, is required to the roof. As a result, general contractors are provided with plans to build structures that at some point would be out of compliance with Cal/OSHA’s interpretation of the access requirements. 

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board (Appeals Board) agreed that the roof level, because of various HVAC and other “fully enclosed rooms” on that level presented a similar hazard to that on the lower floors and should be treated as the upper-most floor.  This required a construction hoist and two stairways to the roof during the entire construction process.

Last month, the full Appeals Board issued a Decision After Reconsideration in McCarthy Building Co. that found the terms “roof” and “uppermost floor” are not the same and may not be interchanged. The language of section 1629 requires a safe means of access and egress the roof, not two stairways. Section 1630 requires that landing for construction hoists be provided on the uppermost floor, not the roof.

As a result of this clarification, contractors in California can complete projects while in compliance with the rules of access and egress.

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