A Brief History of Electrical Codes, Standards, and Regulations and How Proactive Implementation Sustains Long-Term Safety

By George T. Cole, Contributor

Ever since electricity was first harnessed as a clean, affordable, reliable, and efficient form of energy, it has brought about untold improvements to the quality of life for countless people around the world for nearly a century and a half. However, no different than any technological advancements, electrical energy too has its share of hazards and is the culprit behind many disasters. From structural fires to electrocutions, arc flash and serious injuries, electricity like any other form of energy, can pose significant dangers to users if not installed, maintained, and used correctly.

For this reason, various codes, standards, and regulations were developed to help protect people and their property from the dangers of electricity. The National Electrical Code (NEC) was first compiled in 1897 and was championed by the National Board of Fire Underwrites as one of the very first attempts to reduce the numbers of fires caused by the improper installation of electrical equipment. The insurance industry at the time recognized this new marvel of science also came with many challenges, significant risks to safety and a high price due to a lack of standardization of installation rules. Consequently, individual engineers and electrical workers, who at the time were also learning about electricity in its infancy, were entrusted with authoring installation practices based on personal preferences rather than through a consensus of expertise thought. This led to much confusion and a plethora of different types and configurations of installations, sometimes with devastating outcomes. A few years later representatives of different electric code organizations came together to form the National Fire Protection Agency which was later revised to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In 1911 the NFPA became the official sponsor of the NEC, also called NFPA 70.

The NEC Was Not Alone

However other organizations targeting electrical safety in one form, or another were also being founded at the same time as the NEC, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and ASTM International – formerly American Standard for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and were developing their own standards in parallel. While the multitude of codes and standards under development simultaneously by different organizations may have inadvertently contributed to contrary information in the early days, through voluntary harmonization and collaboration by these organizations has steadily minimized duplicity and confusion. As a result, the cumulative efforts by countless dedicated individuals over the years has significantly reduced the number of electrical fires and increased the safe use of electricity over the decades.

Now some one hundred and fifty years later, the NEC is the installation code used by nearly all township, city, county, and state building inspectors, better known as the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) to ensure electrical equipment is properly designed and constructed, throughout most of the US, sometimes with amendments. The newest revision of the NEC was released in 2023.

The Federal Government Enters the Picture With OSHA

But there were problems. First, the previously mentioned groups were founded by private enterprises which severely limited any enforcement authority of their standards and codes other than on a local level and carried little teeth other than through voluntary compliance. Secondly their standards primarily targeted installation practices and equipment design, while important had very little focus on electrical safety practices by workers once the equipment was installed and became operational. But due to the high number of fatalities, serious injuries and long-term negative health impacts to employees (from all forms of hazards in the workplace and not just from electricity), the federal government finally stepped into the picture in 1970 with Congress passing the Occupational Safety and Health Act, better known as the “OSH Act of 1970.” Prior to the OSH act, an estimated 15,000 employees lost their lives annually to job-related accidents with an additional 2.5 million workers suffering some type of disability after surviving an accident. Obviously, not all the pre-OSH act statistics were caused by electricity, but a good percentage were. The purpose of the OSH act is annotated in section 2 “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” and birthed not only the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) but also the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

OSHA’s mission is to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance. NIOSH on the other hand is a research agency focused on the study of worker safety and health, and empowering employers and workers to create safe and healthy workplaces.

Now with the OSH act firmly in place certain portions of electrical safety standards and codes moved from the realm of recommendations to regulations and from voluntary adherence to mandatory compliance backed by the authority of law and punishable through civil and criminal prosecution pursuant to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

NFPA Reaches Out to OSHA With Assistance

Soon after OSHA was established, the scope of the various workplace hazards they had to contend with continued to expand with electrical energy being an obvious threat to worker safety. Through forward looking vision, NFPA understood a new document was needed to address electrical safety practices that also aligned with the NEC’s focus on installation requirements. As a result, the NFPA formed a special committee with the primary goal to aid OSHA in its mission by developing a set of rules specific to safety practices of workers when using electricity rather than just on the electrical installations and design criteria alone. NFPA reached out to OSHA with an offer of assistance in the mid 1970’s which was well received by the newly formed governmental agency. Soon after Subpart S of Part 1910 was revised relying heavily on certain parts of the 1978 edition of the NEC with subsequent revisions incorporating earlier versions of the new document titled NFPA 70E.

OSHA’s General Duty Clause and Consensus Recognized Standards

And while the NEC and NFPA 70E are not officially the law, once OSHA or a state and/or local municipality has adopted it, either wholly or partially, those parts become law. At the same time, even if a safety hazard and its subsequent abatement method is not directly mandated by OSHA regulations but is identified within a nationally recognized industry consensus standard, such as NFPA 70E, then the “General Duty Clause” can be cited in certain situations. Under Section 5(a)(1), employees have a right to “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees…” This means if a recognized hazard exists in the workplace and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent, abate or protect the worker from the hazard, then there’s a case for a General Duty Clause citation if the follow four elements are present:

  1. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed.
  2. The hazard was recognized.
  3. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and
  4. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.

Take for example the dangers workers face from arc flash hazards. For those industries under the provisions of 29CFR1910 subpart S, there is very little guidance regarding arc flash protection. According to 1910.335(a)(1)(iv) and (v), we find generic PPE requirements to protect the employee’s head, eyes, and face from injury by “electric burns or electric arcs or flashes” as shown below.

1910.335(a)(1)(iv)

Employees shall wear nonconductive head protection wherever there is a danger of head injury from electric shock or burns due to contact with exposed energized parts.

1910.335(a)(1)(v)

Employees shall wear protective equipment for the eyes or face wherever there is danger of injury to the eyes or face from electric arcs or flashes or from flying objects resulting from electrical explosion.

But a Letter of Interpretation dated November 14, 2006, to a Ms. Joanne B. Linhard states OSHA won’t cite an employer for failing to implement a non-OSHA standard such as NFPA 70E. But within the letter we read an interesting statement “The General Duty Clause is not used to enforce the provisions of consensus standards, although such standards are sometimes used as evidence of hazard recognition and the availability of feasible means of abatement,” emphasis added. The latter part of the sentence explains non-OSHA standards can be used “as evidence” the employer should have recognized a serious hazard existed and implemented some kind of abatement means. And this “evidence” is especially true, after an incident where a worker is seriously or fatally injured. Common sense and good business practices fully understand that reactive measures are never as effective nor desired as proactive methods which addresses hazards before they injure employees. This is where we can once again learn from our distant past through the old but true adage penned by Benjamin Franklin “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

OSHA is Not Only About Issuing Citations

Unfortunately, many mistakenly think OSHA is limited to only the role of an enforcement agency of workplace safety regulations, who issue citations for non-compliance infractions after concluding investigations or inspections. But OSHA also has a consultation section that helps employers who are proactively trying to self-improve their industrial safety programs. For such employers who are preemptively attempting to improve safety at their worksites and prevent injuries to their employees, OSHA has several programs to aid companies toward this worthy goal. Therefore, by collaborating with OSHA and proactively seeking more effective means of protecting employees from electrical hazard is a recipe for long-term sustainability for any business model. ESW

George T. Cole is an electrical safety consultant and instructor for E-Hazard (https://e-hazard.com). He has over 30 years of experience in the electric utility industry and is currently the

electrical safety consultant and subject matter expert at the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S. Cole holds credentials as a Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional (CESCP) and a Certified Electrical Safety Worker (CESW) from the NFPA and serves as a member of NFPA’s Certification Advisory Group (CAG) for the CESCP and CESW.

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