Avoiding electrical hazards: Stay safe, not sorry - Part 1: Compelled to stay safe in confined spaces

This month’s three-story package covers electrical safety developments you need to know about, from OSHA updates to the impact of the IIoT.

By Matthew Crouse, UL EHS Sustainability

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Read Part 2: How the IIoT is changing electrical safety

Read Part 3: How context-aware technology is helping protect workers

The final years of the Obama administration have seen several changes to OSHA regulations in an agency not known for its ability to quickly promulgate standards. In 2015, OSHA released a new subpart to the 1926 construction standard. Subpart AA, also noted as part 1201, is the Permit Required Confined Space for construction standard.

“Interesting,” you may say, “but I am not in construction. Why should I be concerned with construction confined-space standards?” It’s important to remember that the activity you are performing, not the industry classification, determines whether you follow 1910 General Industry standards or 1926 Construction standards. “Construction work” means work for construction, alteration, and/or repair, including painting and decorating (see http://plnt.sv/1606-OSHA for an August 1994 OSHA memorandum on “construction vs. maintenance”). Short of routine cleaning and component replacement, your activities could be considered construction activities in the eyes of a compliance officer.

Work in and around electrical vaults presents unique hazards for workers. The obvious hazard is electrical, and most companies have done their due diligence in reducing exposure. But are you evaluating whether the vault is a permit-required confined space (PRCS)?

According to the new standards, a space will now be considered confined when it meets the following construction industry definition:

  1. It is large enough and so configured that an employee can bodily enter it (notice the difference from the general industry standard in that it drops the “and perform assigned work” wording),
  2. It has limited or restricted means for entry and exit, AND
  3. It is not designed for continuous occupancy.

By the OSHA definition above, you are most likely entering a confined space when you enter an electrical vault. Further, a confined space is a PRCS if it contains any other recognized hazard. Until you verify that all electrical hazard exposures are at a zero-energy state, you are entering a PRCS when going into an electrical vault. In practice, rarely can all energy be at a zero state in the entire vault. Because of that, any entry into an electrical vault is a PRCS entry requiring that all permit procedures be followed. It is not feasible to use alternative methods and nearly impossible to maintain a zero-energy state.

The solution: Upgrade your current confined-space program to one based on the requirements found in 29CFR1926 Subpart AA. OSHA stated in the preamble to its new standard that compliance with the construction standard will meet compliance with the general industry standard. However, given the greater prescriptive nature of the construction standard, the reverse isn’t also true.

So what does such an upgrade look like? To start, you’ll need a “competent person” who can assess PRCS requirements on a regular – or possibly daily – basis. Be selective when choosing a candidate for this position rather than making it an arbitrary assignment. You will need documentation of the person’s competency – in some cases of noncompliance, this person can be held criminally liable. If you select an untrained hourly worker, you are not only setting everyone up for failure, but also you’re telling a compliance officer that you did not take this responsibility seriously.

After making a wise choice, be sure to empower your PRCS expert with the authority to start and stop entries as well as provide him or her with ongoing education and certification. Your investment in this role will pay additional dividends in an actively engaged employee who sees value in this responsibility.

Next, your PRCS expert should evaluate and re-evaluate your spaces depending on the activity performed there. Unless you are cleaning, troubleshooting, or making in-kind exact replacements in your electrical vault, you could be viewed as performing construction activities in your PRCS.

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