Are new OSHA rules on electrical safety regular or supersize?

2014 changes to the 1910.269 and 1926.960 rules.

By Bob LeRoy, CESCP, Electrical Safety Consultant

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This is the first of a two-part update on OSHA’s new rules on electric power generation, transmission, and distribution.

OSHA issues memorandum to delay enforcement pertaining to the new final rule

OSHA has issued a memorandum to both the construction and maintenance sectors to delay enforcement (hence citations) pertaining to the new final rule issued April 2014. Read Bob's recent blog post to learn more.

On April 11, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its long-awaited changes to rules that affect electric power generation, transmission, and distribution. The saga began with a public release of proposed changes on June 15, 2005. Any time a governmental agency changes the rules, it sends shockwaves of nervousness through the business sector it regulates. “What does this mean for my business operations? How will it affect the ability of my workers to get things done? Will I be able to continue with business as usual, or will it mean drastic changes to my bottom line?” These are all valid questions foremost in the minds of health and safety professionals tasked with ensuring safety and compliance for their employers. The major OSHA changes will affect utilities and manufacturers that own or operate their own utility-type installations as a secondary part of business operations.

When OSHA was first established, it caused quite a stir. The year was 1971, and our world was already in turmoil. Political unrest, dissent within our military, and a book published a generation earlier about the not-so-distant future was seemingly playing out right before our eyes. George Orwell’s classic, “1984,” predicted a time when “big brother” would monitor and control mankind. My electrical apprenticeship had just begun and the big brothers in the trade who were training me warned that, with the onset of an agency such as OSHA overlooking our every move, life on the job would never be the same. Our world had changed in an instant for no conceivable reason, they concluded. But was it for no reason, and why exactly was OSHA established to begin with? Maybe the answers to these basic questions could give some insight to the ever-constant evolution of changes from this agency since its inception, and better still, help us to reason why the change process must never end.

Statistics proved the need for such a move by our U.S. Congress in 1971. The annual tally of fatality rates among all trades was 18 per 100,000 workers. And occupational illnesses and diseases were in the hundreds of thousands consistently during the previous decade. All of this was happening during a time of great expansion among American businesses with even greater training and preparation of the workforce. Preserving the health and safety of a skilled workforce became the focus of OSHA, called “the Agency” in its own documents. It was established because American workers needed protection, but protection from whom or protection from what?

With obvious and glaring exceptions, many of the skilled workers needed as much if not more protection from themselves as they did from those that employ them. Were our fathers or grandfathers less skilled than the workers of today? When they reported to work, was there less resolve to go home with all the body parts they began with? This was a time of great invention and creativity in manufacturing, production, and electrical power. These talented and skilled forerunners needed a foundational set of guidelines to put boundaries around their creativity and invention while on the job. Great strides have been made in the work arena since those initial guidelines, or work rules, were released. Annual incident and injury rates in all areas have fallen across the board, and fatality rates have decreased to near 3 per 100,000. Much of this success can be directly traced to developing, or promulgating, foundational work rules, hazard awareness, and clear expectations.

osha upadte 1 1
Figure 1. The electric power generation, transmission, and distribution sector, commonly called utility companies, has long been considered so technically unique and self-regulating that further intervention was not necessary or already was being addressed internally.

OSHA tracks each work sector separately and establishes or modifies rules to meet current trends as they’re discovered. The electrical utilization sector was not self-regulated well, and the focus for electrical safe work practices began in that arena. Work rules for both construction and maintenance were released to that sector by the early 1980s. The electric power generation, transmission, and distribution sector, commonly called utility companies, has long been considered so technically unique and self-regulating that further intervention was not necessary or already was being addressed internally (Figure 1). As some utility companies are privately owned and under the watchful eye of OSHA, others are municipal or governmentally owned and by definition not entirely under OSHA oversight; as a result, consistent work practices were not commonly followed. Contractors working for either of these entities were left in a sense of confusion as to what or to whom they were ultimately responsible. There’s no evidence that utilities, regardless of their ownership, were intentionally placing any worker at risk, but this atmosphere of inconsistency could easily escalate into unsafe practices if not controlled.

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