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OSHA’s New Electric-Power Standards Will Energize Industry Safety Efforts, Expert Says

April 30, 2014
Allen Hajian of Schneider Electric believes OSHA's new standards for the construction and maintenance of electric-power infrastructure will improve workplace safety and health for employees in the industry.

On July 16, 2012, a utility worker installing replacement batteries in a substation suffered second- and third-degree burns when a battery cable fell onto the terminals of a battery and created an electric arc. The employee, whose injuries required several surgeries, had not been trained on the proper procedures for working with wet-cell batteries, according to OSHA.

On Nov. 20, 2011, a power-line worker troubleshooting a blown fuse on a utility pole died when a tractor-trailer struck his aerial lift and ejected him from the platform. Because the man and his co-worker had determined that the repair would take less than 15 minutes, company policy did not require the use of work-zone signs.

According to OSHA, these are two examples of the types of accidents that its revised standards for the construction and maintenance of electric-power infrastructure will prevent.

The updated standards, published in the April 11 Federal Register, mandate improved fall protection for workers on aerial lifts and towers, adopt revised approach-distance requirements to ensure that unprotected workers don’t get too close to energized lines and equipment, and address the safe use and care of electrical protective equipment. They also add new requirements to protect workers from electric arcs. 

The effort to update the several dozen standards that touch on electric-power maintenance and construction work has been no small undertaking. OSHA began the rulemaking process in 2005, and the final rule harmonizes the construction and general-industry requirements and incorporates the latest consensus standards and improvements in electrical-safety technology, OSHA says.

Allen Hajian of Schneider Electric notes that much has changed since OSHA last updated its electric-power construction standard in 1972 and its general-industry standard in 1994.

“Over the last 20 years on the general-industry side, we’ve learned a lot about how electricity behaves, how electric arcs behave and how to protect employees from electric shock when they’re not touching the [energized] part,” says Hajian, who is director of safety and environment, services North America, for the energy management firm.

“At the same time, the chemical and fabric industry has figured out how to make fabric and non-rubber insulating materials that protect employees from electric shock and arc flashes, and we’ve learned more about fall protection. So there are a lot of different aspects to the revised regulations that have come about in the last 20 years as a result of technological advances in all industries, not just the electric industry.”

New Arc-Flash Requirements

Perhaps the most significant change is the inclusion of new requirements to protect workers from arc-flash hazards. Employers will have to assess their worksites for arc-flash hazards, estimate the incident energy of electric-arc hazards and ensure that workers exposed to electric-arc hazards have PPE with arc ratings greater than or equal to the estimated heat energy. OSHA’s revised standards include incident-energy and approach-distance tables as well as guidance on selecting the proper PPE for workers exposed to arc-flash hazards.

“It’s going to be a major effort for the industry to comply,” Hajian says. “I think OSHA realizes that, which is why they’ve given the industry until April 1, 2015, for compliance.”

Don't Let Workers' Lives End in a Flash

Among other significant changes, Hajian points to new requirements that host and contract employers must share safety information with each other and coordinate their work rules and procedures.

“It’s a good move on OSHA’s part to ensure first of all that owners know their own equipment and second to communicate any safety hazards to their contractors to keep the contractors and the contractors’ employees safe, as well as their own employees safe,” Hajian says.

OSHA estimates that the updated standards will save nearly 20 lives and prevent 118 serious injuries every year. Hajian believes those numbers could be even higher.

In a letter to OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels, Hajian asserts that the new hazard-assessment requirements “will undoubtedly result in implementing new engineering philosophies and designs that will enhance workplace safety for employees and electrical system reliability, while reducing the risk of costly downtime.”

“Just having arc-resistant PPE on when you’re in an arc-flash zone, making sure you have proper fall protection on, having good communication between employers and contractors, making sure you have proper grounding systems in place – all of those will improve safety and prevent injuries,” Hajian tells EHS Today.

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