OSHA's History: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Electrical Safety and NFPA 70E

OSHA History

Safety—Then and Now

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, a new program that would create regulations to improve safety in the workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), was created “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.”

Prior to the OSH Act, there had been federal and state programs intended to improve worker safety, but these had largely fallen short. The Taft-Hartley Act and the Walsh-Healy Act had requirements buried within their language that sought better working conditions and procedures to protect workers. Employers had to understand and interpret these regulations while trying to be competitive in the marketplace; Accidents and fatalities continued. At the time Congress was debating the development of OSHA, over 14,000 fatalities and 2.5 million job-related disabilities occurred per year.

There was no question that safety improvements were needed, but how would this affect the growing electrical industry and electrical contractors? What made the OSH Act different than its predecessors? How would the government get employers to comply? Would workers finally be protected from the many hazards that existed then and continue to exist in workplaces of today?

Little did we know about the challenges that lay ahead or the successes that technology would bring in implementing safety requirements.

The OSHA effect

OSHA was created with the requirement for employers to provide workers a place of employment free from recognized hazards. This objective—the General Duty Clause found in Section 5(a)(1)—aims to provide protection from unhealthy and dangerous conditions that are likely to cause death or serious harm. At that time, the electrical industry had identified two major hazards: electrical shocks and electrical burns. It was not until many years later that arc blasts became the third.

Many of today’s OSHA standards are the same as they were in the early ’70s. Questions are often asked about new electrical safety requirements that OSHA has adopted from NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, but in reality, no requirements different from those set forth in the original OSHA regulations have been implemented. NFPA 70E provides only a means to comply with those rules set forth in the original legislation.

OSHA is often referred to as the “shall” requirements or the law. That is, employers must comply with OSHA’s rules and regulations or face citations and penalties. At OSHA’s request, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) developed 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, to provide practices and procedures that can assist an employer with complying with all the federal regulations promulgated to protect their employees and thus avoid any citations or penalties.

The OSHA standards development, adoption and modification process is lengthy. From initial concept to publication in the Federal Register, publishing a Final Rule can take many years. Recognizing that, OSHA and the NFPA Standards Council still determined that incorporating the latest electrical safety standards was important, though their regulation and standards updating processes differ.

The NFPA has a standards-development process in accordance with ANSI Essential Requirements for standards developers. The revision cycle is typically five years, much quicker than OSHA. Since OSHA governed employers and employee responsibilities, a document that ensured electrical safety was proposed and the concept for a new consensus standard for electrical safety in the workplace was approved from three entities at the NFPA: the Electrical Section of NFPA, The Correlating Committee for National Electrical Code (NEC) documents and the NFPA Standards Council.

NFPA intended its new electrical safety standard to contain four major parts related to electrical safety. Only the first, “Part I, Installation Safety Requirements,” was included in the first edition published in 1979. In 1981, the second edition added “Part II, Safety-Related Work Practices.” Subsequently, “Part III, Safety-Related Maintenance Requirements” and “Part IV, Safety Requirement for Special Equipment” were added in later editions. It was later identified in 2009 that design and installation requirements found in the NEC are for individuals who design, install and inspect electrical equipment, and the NFPA removed these requirements from 70E.

In 1981, OSHA published a final rule for electrical standards in General Industry. OSHA had determined electrical hazards posed a significant risk of injury or death to employees in the workplace and realized the NEC offered protection from these recognized hazards. By placing the requirements that were relevant directly into the standards, employers and OSHA would no longer have to refer to another document incorporated by reference to understand their obligations. The 1983 edition of NFPA 70E was referenced in an OSHA Instruction STD 1-16.7 on July 1, 1991, from the Directorate of Compliance Programs. This may have been the impetus of OSHA’s recognition that there was a document employers could use to enact electrical safety-related work practices for employee protection.

In the 1981 edition of NFPA 70E, the definition of “electrical hazard” was “a dangerous electrical condition.” Contrast that to the definition in the 2018 edition: “A dangerous condition such that contact or equipment failure can result in electric shock, arc-flash burn, thermal burn or arc-blast injury.” It is easy to see that updating NFPA standards is a constant and ongoing process.

Another important connection between OSHA and NFPA 70E is how they address hazards and risk assessment. OSHA is known for addressing hazards by engineering the hazards out. If that is not possible, employers and employees are instructed to use administrative controls to manage the risk and, as a last resort, use the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers from the hazards they face. The 2018 NFPA 70E has incorporated the ANSI/AIHA Z10, Hierarchy of Risk Controls methods as positive language to address hazard and risk assessment. In this approach, elimination is the first step in the risk assessment procedure. If you can eliminate the hazard, that is the best protective measure for all involved. The six steps of this method in priority sequence are elimination, substitution, engineering controls, awareness, administrative controls and PPE. The first three are the most effective in controlling risk and hazards, and the last three must consider human factors as part of the risk assessment procedure.

During the 1980s, OSHA also began to emphasize collaboration with employers and employees by providing education and outreach instead of continuing with an enforcement-only role in the workplace. Assistance and consultation programs were initiated to assist employers in compliance with the federal requirements, ensuring a workplace is free from recognized hazards. This enabled OSHA to become a more collaborative partner working with companies instead of being solely an enforcer of the rules.

It was not until 2007 when a new revision to the OSHA Final Rule for electrical standards would update the references to the 2000 edition of NFPA 70E and the 2002 edition of the NEC. To follow the proper procedures, OSHA had released the proposed final rule in 2004 for public comment prior to the NFPA approving the new 2004 Edition of NFPA 70E. Employers should remember that whatever edition the OSHA regulations reference, they always have the choice to adopt newer, more stringent safety standards.

Addressing new technology

Electrical systems have evolved tremendously over the years. From the initial direct current generator supplying electricity at a power plant designed by Thomas Edison in the late 1800s, to the megawatt generators used today, the capacity of our electrical sources continues to grow. Today, alternative energy technologies, energy storage systems and the onset of microgrids offer ways to generate and use electricity that were not available 10 to 20 years ago. The timetable for OSHA addressing regulatory change is much longer than other standards development processes, such as the NEC and NFPA 70E, which are revised in a more frequent cycle and address new technologies to remain accurate and relevant and stay on the forefront of electrical installation and workplace safety.

A valid safety concern arises when examining electrical materials and equipment and their evolution over the years. Initially, transformers used to step down or step up voltages, and they had higher impedances that limited the available fault current that could be delivered in an electrical service or circuit. Federal mandates to address energy efficiencies result in equipment being designed for energy efficiency. While lower impedences in transformers are typically more efficient, higher available currents are present during a short-circuit or ground-fault condition. This means the equipment must be rated properly, and when justified energized work is performed, incident energy levels can be high.

Electrical conductors and cables offer another example of electrical safety improving over time. Some of the first wiring installed in premises wiring systems used concealed knob-and-tube wiring, a wiring method using porcelain knobs, tubes and flexible nonmetallic tubing for the protection and support of single insulated conductors. Knob-and-tube wiring is no longer recognized as a general wiring method, and when it is used, it is by special permission for an extension of an existing installation. Conductors and cables used today have higher temperature ratings, inherently safer designs, and materials construction that is better rated for the environment and application.

Another advancement OSHA incorporated early in its regulations was ground-fault circuit-interrupters, a technology that protects people from electric shock and electrocution. GFCI technology had already proven to save lives in areas with exposure to water, such as bathrooms, garages, kitchens, areas with sinks or basins and the outdoors. By incorporating the GFCI requirements in OSHA regulations, employers now have the option of choosing between an assured equipment grounding conductor program and/or implementing GFCI protection for all portable tools used on the job.

The key concept for new installations and electrical safety for workers is incorporating a safety-by-design approach or properly planning and coordinating electrical equipment and circuits to best protect property and workers. This concept helps to reduce catastrophic consequences to equipment and personnel.

Today, electrical contractors are better educated in the areas of safety and regulations, and they realize OSHA uses enforcement or the possibility of enforcement as a compliance tool. As demonstrated by present and past administrations, OSHA can help employers fulfill their obligations to protect their employees. Through consultations, training resources and OSHA directives, employers can easily comply with the rules OSHA has developed using resources like NFPA 70E and outreach programs.

While today’s standards address the known challenges in the electrical industry, looking ahead and planning for new technologies will ensure all workers are safe and protected now and in the future in addition to complying with any and all federal rules and regulations.

About the Author

Wesley L. Wheeler

Director of Safety, NECA

Wes Wheeler is NECA’s director of safety and is a technical committee member on both NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, and NFPA 70E. He can be reached at wesley.wheeler@necanet.org.

About the Author

Michael Johnston

Executive Director of Standards and Safety, NECA

Michael Johnston is NECA’s executive director of standards and safety. He is chair of the NEC Correlating Committee; chair of the NFPA Electrical Section; and a member of the IBEW, NFPA Education Section and the UL Electrical Council. Reach him at mj...

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