Congress Urges OSHA To Act on Arc Flash PPE

Scott Margolin, Co-Chairman, The Partnership for Electrical Safety

At least half a million industrial electrical workers STILL are not provided arc rated clothing and other PPE they need to do the job safely.

The Partnership for Electrical Safety (PES) has admirable goals, dedicated members, and bad timing. PES was founded in early 2020, with its first meeting scheduled for late March…one week after the NBA and NHL shut down along with the rest of the country. That inaugural meeting, and all following ones, have been held on Zoom. However, very significant progress has been made despite the headwinds of the pandemic and the presidential election cycle with its subsequent change of administration, policies, and focus.

If you’re not familiar with PES or its work, here’s a brief primer.

The Partnership for Electrical Safety firmly believes that every American working on or near energized electrical equipment deserves equal protection from arc flash, including the appropriate arc rated clothing and associated PPE (personal protective equipment). We believe that the PPE requirements of NFPA 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace provide the appropriate best practices to ensure industrial electrical worker and operator safety, and should be broadly adopted for substantially all live or potentially live industrial electrical work in the United States. We seek to educate those at risk and to make plain to relevant oversight entities the need for use of PPE when doing industrial electrical work, and the extreme human and financial costs of non-compliance.

Transmission and distribution utilities have provided arc flash PPE since 1994, which has dramatically reduced injuries and virtually eliminated arc flash fatalities among line workers. Despite that success, and despite the NFPA 70E standard, which has included the arc flash hazard and relevant PPE for over twenty years, at least half a million industrial electrical workers STILL are not provided arc rated clothing and other PPE they need to do the job safely. The fix for this long-standing unsafe, unequal situation is simple: OSHA must act to give industrial electrical workers the same protection their utility counterparts have long enjoyed.

OSHA action has long been a primary driver of major American workplace safety advances, including several directly relevant to this issue. OSHA was heavily involved in the Electric Utility segment move to arc flash PPE in the mid-1990s, initial industrial electrical adoptions of NFPA 70E in the early 2000s, the Oil & Gas segment move to flash fire PPE both in the late 1980s, and again with the publishing of NFPA 2112 in the early 2000s. The most recent example is also an almost perfect match and template for the current lack of industrial electrical PPE.

OSHA published a document in March of 2010 (often called the “Drilling Letter”) which essentially noted that A) the drilling industry has the same flash fire hazard as the rest of the Oil & Gas Industry; B) that there are consensus standards which clearly address both the hazard and feasible means of abatement, including PPE; C) that despite these standards existing for a decade at that time, the significant majority of the drilling segment did not provide the flash fire PPE; and D) as a result, OSHA was directing the drilling industry to act. An almost identical scenario exists today, except that NPFA 70E has included arc flash for twice as long – twenty years, not ten, and the number of unprotected industrial electrical workers is substantially larger – making this situation even more urgent.

PES Progress

Since the pandemic hit, it has been essentially impossible to take the traditional approach and meet with relevant people in person to make the case. But because the situation affects so many people and the PPE/no PPE divide is so stark (an arc flash without PPE will usually result in catastrophic injury or death, whereas with the PPE there is very minor or no injury), we found many people at OSHA and within Congress were very willing to engage on the matter.

OSHA Letter

PES began by vetting our concerns and our intended approach with a gentleman recently retired from OSHA; during his 40-year tenure he was the primary author of most of OSHA’s electrical standards. He also served on the NFPA 70E committee, ASTM F-18, and a myriad of other electrical safety efforts. He quickly agreed that there is a serious issue here which demands resolution and worked closely with us to draft a letter to OSHA. Despite submission of that letter during an administration which was resistant to regulatory processes, OSHA did respond positively in late 2020, concurring with the PES position: “OSHA agrees with [PES] that the hazards associated with arc-flashes are serious” but noting they were not prepared to act immediately, likely due to both the pandemic and the impending presidential election.

Congressional Engagement

PES identified key members of Congress who have oversight for the Department of Labor and OSHA as a result of committee assignments and other legislative business. Our association has held a series of meetings over several months with more than a dozen of these Congressmen and women and their staffs, emerging with unanimous agreement that the issue is consequential, and must be rectified. We have spoken with both Republicans and Democrats, in the House and Senate, including Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK, 4th District), Rep. John Moolenaar (R-MI, 4th District), Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC, 12th District), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA, 1st District) and Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ, 1st District). Everyone was willing to help, and many have offered to take proactive steps. Rep. Norcross is the only electrician serving in Congress and has been very generous with his time and assistance; he has first-hand experience with the frequency and severity of electrical injuries in general and arc flash in particular.

Congress Urges OSHA to Act on Arc Flash PPE

Both the House and the Senate have sent bipartisan letters to OSHA. On May 14, 2021, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety Senator John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Ranking Member Senator Mike Braun sent a letter to the OSHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary James Frederick urging OSHA to take a renewed approach to this standard. The House of Representatives sent a companion letter on May 17, 2021, led by Representative Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) with support from Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), and Haley Stevens (D-MI).

OSHA Secretary Doug Parker

During confirmation hearings for incoming OSHA Secretary Parker on May 27th 2021, he was asked about his awareness of and disposition toward the arc flash PPE issue by Senator Mike Braun:

“Senator Hickenlooper and I, as the Chair and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Employment and Workforce Safety, have already begun to work with OSHA regarding industry safety standards. This has included clarifying personal protective equipment for industrial electricians. Can you commit today to working with my office in order to shore up these standards?”

Mr. Parker responded,

“If confirmed I would be happy to provide technical assistance with respect to this or other legislation. Similarly, I am willing to work with your office on improving health and safety standards, including on personal protective equipment for industrial electricians and a standard to protect workers in the tree care industry.”

The three things are almost always necessary to fix a problem are now in place: knowledge among the relevant people that the issue exists, understanding of the scope, consequences and urgency, and agreement on a path to resolution. The Partnership for Electrical Safety is delighted that the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and incoming Department of Labor leadership understand the gravity of the hazard and the urgency of action to remedy the protection gap which exists today. At least 500,000 American electrical workers will continue to go to work every day without lifesaving PPE until OSHA acts.

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