If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you work in a fleet management role. Your mechanics and drivers don’t do line work, install phone lines, bury gas lines or dig up high-pressure water lines. But what if they service equipment in the vicinity of craft workers who do perform those tasks? Are they exposed to hazards not related to their direct responsibilities? If so, what is your responsibility as their manager? This article is about educating supervisors regarding hazard evaluation. Where your people work and the hazards they face while on the job are your responsibility. So, following is an example that demonstrates how OSHA’s expectations with regard to your responsibility to your employees may exceed the agency’s written rules in ways you may not be aware of.
There is an employer who is a transmission-distribution contractor; the business also has a telecommunications (telcom) division. The employer’s lineworkers must wear arc flash protective clothing required by OSHA, but as far as he knows, his telcom employees are not required by the OSHA rules to wear arc flash protective clothing. However, because of an incident involving some of his telcom employees, the employer became concerned. He wondered, why don’t telcom employees have to wear arc flash protective clothing, and should they be wearing it? Keep in mind that arc flash protective clothing is not the same thing as flame-resistant (FR) clothing. Welders, wrecker operators and traffic control professionals wear safety vests and bibs that are considered flame-resistant. Flame resistance is the quality of a material designed for protection from exposure to fire or flame, not electrical arcs. OSHA requires that arc flash protective clothing also must be flame resistant to ensure clothing does not continue to burn after exposure to an electrical arc. In addition, flame resistance is required for the outer layer of clothing worn by a worker who could be exposed to a heat source that could ignite that outer layer. There has been confusion over the years, so it is important to recognize that use of the term “FR” on a traffic vest label does not mean the vest is arc protective; it is only flame resistant. It’s a habit to use the term FR when referring to arc flash protective gear, but we all need to understand the difference in labeling.
Now, let’s get back to the contractor’s questions: Why don’t telcom employees have to wear arc flash protective clothing, and should they be wearing it? Over the years, I have been asked dozens of times about who should don arc flash protective clothing. The question often comes up because OSHA does not always address specific issues in the regulations. Employers sometimes are found not in compliance with OSHA simply because their issues are not addressed. This is where knowledge of the OSHA standards, and knowledge of the intent of the OSHA standards and consensus standards, is so important.
The Telecommunications Standard
Let’s start where almost everyone trying to answer the telcom/arc flash question would start: the OSHA telecommunications standard found at 29 CFR 1910.268. This might get a little tedious, but it’s important, so hang in there. The telcom standard covers telcom workers from all aspects of the communications industry – wired and non-wired, center work and field work. It often addresses working in proximity to distribution voltages, which are low-voltage exposures. The 1910.268 standard also covers risers, streetlights and other pole-mounted components; checking for potential differences between those components; and temporary bonding for worker protection. In addition, the standard discusses when rubber gloves are required, as well as cover and barrier use to protect telcom workers. The 1910.268 standard even refers to training and use of rubber insulating equipment, directing the employer to part 1910.137, “Electrical Protective Equipment,” the same standard followed by qualified electric utility workers. Yet even with all of those requirements and references, the 1910.268 standard does not refer to arc flash hazards or arc flash protective clothing. Often when OSHA is silent on a particular exposure, employers think that means there is no applicable standard they need to follow. They are wrong.
There is a rule in 1910.268 that can be interpreted as a requirement for arc protective wear if you read it carefully, which means looking up the included reference, a key activity frequently ignored. Rule 1910.268(a)(3) states, “Operations or conditions not specifically covered by this section are subject to all the applicable standards contained in this part 1910. See §1910.5(c).” Section 1910.5(c) is a header reference, meaning that all references following, as applicable, will apply to the workplace. In this case, 1910.5(c) has two subparagraphs, (c)(1) and (c)(2).
Rule 1910.5(c)(2) states that “… any standard shall apply according to its terms to any employment and place of employment in any industry, even though particular standards are also prescribed for the industry, as in subpart B or subpart R of this part, to the extent that none of such particular standards applies.” The “particular standards” referred to are those vertical standards such as 1910.268. Standard 1910.268, which falls under Subpart R, particularly applies to the unique workplace exposures of the telcom industry, just like 1910.269 – which also falls under Subpart R – applies to the unique exposures of electrical generation, transmission and distribution workers. In plain language, rule 1910.268(a)(3) means that exposures (conditions) not covered in 1910.268 are subject to any applicable standards in 1910.269. The task for the employer now is to determine how to find out which other standards might apply. That brings us to hazard analysis.
In the case of the transmission-distribution contractor referenced earlier in this article, the company’s workers had twice experienced secondary arc flash near their communications equipment in the previous six months. The safety committee at the contractor could not agree on whether that constituted a hazard because one, no one was burned, and two, arc protective wear was not required by either 1910.268 or their company safety manual. The contractor’s safety department was leaning toward arc flash protection, and they were probably right. In the contractor’s case, they were working with CATV mounted on strand within reach of secondary conductors in residential neighborhoods. The older secondary installation was worn and likely poorly insulated. Disturbance of the structure got conductors together and a flash occurred.
The contractor’s safety department was following through on their responsibility to protect both the workers and the employer. Even though the contractor’s work standards were in compliance with the 1910.268 standard and intended to keep telcom workers isolated from electrical exposures, rules on paper cannot foresee every scenario. In these two cases, work procedures and clearances followed by the telcom workers didn’t prevent a secondary flash in proximity to the workers. And considering that the incidents occurred previously, and the conditions of construction were not likely to improve, it was a certainty that a secondary flash could reoccur. Once a hazard has been identified, even if it is not covered in the OSHA standard, the employer must act to limit the risk of exposure. Since telcom workers are not qualified electrical workers with the ability to assess acute hazards and cannot rework energized secondary, the possibility of another incident should be considered as likely. At a minimum, the employer would be expected to provide additional training specific to the nature of the risk and PPE commensurate to the exposure. That obligation comes from the General Duty Clause. A General Duty Clause violation is based on the employer’s knowledge of the risk and awareness that remediation is available.
OSHA has a policy for violations covered under the General Duty Clause, described as follows in a 2003 letter of interpretation to Mr. Milan Racic of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (see www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2003-12-18-1): “Employers can be cited for violation of the General Duty Clause if a recognized serious hazard exists in their workplace and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard. The General Duty Clause is used only where there is no standard that applies to the particular hazard. The following elements are necessary to prove a violation of the General Duty Clause: a. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed; b. The hazard was recognized; c. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and d. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.”
It boils down to three things: 1. Employers are expected to know what hazards exist in the workplace. 2. Just because you are a member of a particular workplace covered by a particular vertical standard does not mean that you may ignore the rest of the standards followed by everybody else. 3. If the employer has actual or constructive knowledge that a hazard exists, they must take suitable action to limit the exposure to employees.
And finally, the answer to the transmission-distribution contractor’s questions is that under certain conditions, telcom workers may be required by OSHA to don arc protective outerwear for their protection. The same may be true for fleet mechanics on some work sites. As the employer, you must examine the workplace and be able to justify the procedures and protections in place to ensure a workplace free of recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.