As a historically niche activity, indoor climbing has long flown under the radar when it comes to enforcement of safety regulations. Technically, climbing facility operations like route setting and wall maintenance are held to the same worker safety standards as other industries such as roofing and window washing. But the fact is, governing bodies like the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) don’t know about climbing or operating a gym. As a result, enforcement has been lax, and climbing-specific regulations don’t exist.
In the community of indoor climbing facility managers, confusion abounds about worker health and safety regulations. This article will attempt to shed some light on the impending trend toward stricter regulations. While this article will not go in-depth into the details of the regulations themselves, it will provide resources for further education, as well as suggest ANSI certified gear that provides a good first step towards running a safe and compliant workspace.
Times are Changing
Popular practices for route setting and climbing wall maintenance, though generally deemed safe by climbers and gym staff, often don’t comply with ANSI and OSHA regulations. Since inspections have been and remain extremely rare in the past, such practices remain common despite their noncompliance with safety standards. However, with climbing increasingly entering the public awareness, industry professionals suspect that a crackdown in the form of more frequent inspection and regulation enforcement could be on the horizon. While tightening regulations have the potential to affect climbing gyms across the country, university walls may be especially at risk, since they are located on campus near other facilities (like dining halls and rec centers) that are subject to regular inspections.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of rules and regulations, let’s clarify the difference between ANSI and OSHA. ANSI is a non-profit that oversees the development of safety and quality standards for a variety of industries nationwide. OSHA, on the other hand, is an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor, and is responsible for enforcing standards through safety inspections that can result in citations and fines.
Many ANSI standards are considered excessive by professionals in the climbing gym setting, where simplicity and efficiency tend to be paramount. Wearing a standard climbing harness and using a GriGri as a hands-free device while setting, for example, are widely considered legitimate and safe practices in climbing gyms. But according to ANSI standards, full-body harnesses and comprehensive backup systems should be required of route setters (among myriad additional regulations). Climbers aren’t known to be rule followers, but complying with ANSI standards is important both for the wellbeing of gym workers and the avoidance of OSHA crackdowns.
The Climbing Wall Association (CWA), which promotes professionalism in the climbing wall industry, is working to develop best practices specific to climbing walls in the hopes of eliminating the grey area that exists when climbing gyms are held to the same standards as vastly different industries like construction. The CWA’s standards will make some concessions to ANSI’s strict regulations in reasonable areas, such as requiring full-body harnesses for route setting and back wall maintenance, but will also validate the safety of certain systems used in climbing facilities that ANSI denounces. The CWA’s standard practices, if widely adopted by climbing wall managers, will give the industry collective power to influence ANSI regulations for climbing walls and protect against OSHA enforcement.
What do the regulations actually say?
That’s a tough question to answer. The ANSI and OSHA standards that climbing facilities fall under are vague and confusing, especially since climbing-specific regulations don’t exist. Standards designed for other jobs that occur at height must be applied to climbing, which leaves a lot to interpretation. Such standards are most applicable to route setting and behind-the-wall facility maintenance. Facility managers should become knowledgeable about regulations and make adjustments to their practices in order to comply. Reading up on window washing and roofing regulations is a good place to begin, as they use systems most closely related to climbing wall maintenance. The following resources are a good place to begin self-educating:Understanding ANSI Fall Protection Code Climbing Wall Association Website and Forums OSHA Fall Protection Standards and Policy for Non-Construction Work ANSI Webstore Climbing Business Journal, Rope Access Rigging Head for Setters OSHA Protecting Zipline Workers
The first step in defending against OSHA enforcement is to ensure that all gear used for route setting and wall maintenance is not only compliant with ANSI standards, but certified by the organization. ANSI certified gear is triple-tested in various labs; while in many cases, the strength ratings of the gear seems unnecessary, ANSI requires that gear used for certain purposes such as fall arrest and ascent are certified. Gear that meets ANSI standards but is not ANSI certified is still liable to OSHA citations.
The following gear is ANSI certified and recommended for use in your on-campus climbing facility. Readers with College Outside group accounts will be able to view the products on the College Outside shop. To view CAMP’s whole line of safety gear or view the products without a College Outside group account, visit the CAMP Safety website.
Recommended ANSI Certified Gear
Harnesses: New ANSI regulations require climbing gym staff to wear full-body harnesses when working at height on the front and back of the wall. The GT ANSI Harness is certified for such use.
Helmets: ANSI regulations require that climbing gym staff wear a helmet when working at height on the front or back of the wall. We recommend the ANSI certified Ares helmet.
Rope tools: For use on the front and back of wall, the Giant is CAMP’s new descender with fall arrest, ascension, and belaying capabilities. The Giant is ANSI certified and can be used in place of a GriGri, which is not certified for hands-free or non-belaying uses. For use on the front and back of the wall, the Goblin is an ANSI certified fall arrest device for us as a backup while ascending or descending semi-static ropes.
For additional ANSI certified and compliant products such as lanyards, anchor materials, ascenders etc. visit the CAMP Safety website.
With the potential for worker safety inspections on the horizon, the best preparation you can do for your on-campus gym is to get educated and get outfitted. Stay safe out there!