The Occupational Safety and Health Administration settled a lawsuit last month brought by a group of investor-owned utilities, with the end result clarifying new standards that will affect many IBEW members.
In April 2014, OSHA issued updated standards for electric power generation, transmission and distribution for general industry and construction. The standards apply to minimum approach distances, electric arc protection, flame resistant clothing, fall protection and more.
After OSHA’s revisions, The Edison Electric Institute, an association representing investor-owned electric companies across the U.S., filed a lawsuit with the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals citing the need for clearer understanding before the new standards should be enforced. Filing similar suits were the Utility Line Clearance Coalition and the Tree Care Industry Association.
“The industry wanted clarification on how to implement rules – what they would and wouldn’t get cited for,” said David Mullen, director of IBEW’s Safety and Health Department at the International Office in Washington, D.C.
To address EEI’s concerns, OSHA reached out to the IBEW to join the proceedings – not as a party to the suit, but as key industry stakeholders. The union represents about 250,000 members who work in the utility sector.
“We’re held in very high regard by OSHA when it comes to these kind of things,” Mullen said. “Our part was, very simply, to help work with the process. We were never part of the lawsuit, but because of our standing in the industry, they wanted us at the table.”
Lawyers from EEI, OSHA and the IBEW worked for six months beginning last September to clarify language in the 2014 standards leading up to February’s settlement. “IBEW members should be fully aware that the new standard is now enforceable,” Mullen said. “Companies are going to be held more accountable. Training is going to be better. Job briefings are going to be better. We should be more informed on the job now.”
Some revisions to the OSHA standards include:
- Fire and heat protection: Flame resistant clothing is defined as personal protective equipment and must be provided by the employer (including shirts and pants).
- Information transfer: Utilities are held to higher standards to communicate to contractors – who must then brief employees – regarding all issues of protection on the job. “OSHA has laid the foundation that this is paramount to keeping our people safe,” Mullen said.
- High voltage safety: OSHA has revised the minimum approach distances for voltages of 5.1 kilovolts and more. Additional requirements regarding higher voltage standards will be gradually phased in through 2016.
- Fall protection: Many new changes are in effect for members, depending on the nature of their job classifications and work assignments. Specific information regarding poles, aerial lifts and more can be found at www.bit.ly/IBEWfallprotection.
“The long-overdue final rule updating a 40-year-old standard will save nearly 20 lives and prevent 118 serious injuries annually,” said David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor. “Electric utilities, electrical contractors and labor organizations have long championed these much needed measures to better protect the men and women who work on or near electrical power lines.”
Mullen said that the IBEW’s main goal in the process has been to do what’s in the best interest of the membership. “Our people go into potentially dangerous conditions, day in and day out,” he said. “If these new standards save even one more life, they will be worth it.”
Mullen urges IBEW members to make frequent visits to the newly updated IBEW Safety and Health Department webpage, located at www.ibew.org/Safety-Health.
Learn more about the new regulations and their timeline for implementation at www.bit.ly/OSHAstandard.