NESC: A New Century of Focus on Worker Safety

NESC.gifLast year the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC), published under the aegis of the IEEE Standards Association, marked a century of work on best practices to protect the public and electrical and communications workers from the potential hazards of electricity.

May 2015 marks National Electrical Safety Month. To mark the occasion, let’s learn about specific changes in the NESC scheduled for 2017 publication, the next revision in an ongoing, five-year cycle, as well as the methodical, open process we follow in making revisions.

Let me say this up front: It makes me cringe to see clichéd references to “safety rules, written in blood.” That is most assuredly not the case with Subcommittee 8. Dozens if not hundreds of people toil year round on developing sound and methodical processes for ensuring that safety rules keep pace with developments in the electric sector.

HARMONIZING NESC AND OSHA

We’ve just reached the end of the public comment period for the harmonization of NESC Part 4 rules and the latest U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. The process helps illustrate the role NESC Subcommittee 8 plays in directly improving worker safety.

As many of you know, OSHA is a federal agency charged with promulgating and enforcing workplace rules. Its admirable goal is zero workplace accidents. To achieve that goal, however, OSHA tends to be prescriptive. OSHA writes rules designed to prevent any accident whatsoever, but not all accidents can be foreseen. That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of its role. To its credit, OSHA understands and accepts the NESC’s role and historically has worked with Subcommittee 8 towards harmonization.

NESC subcommittees are staffed by people with direct experience in the field of electrical work. Subcommittee 8 is focused on the electrical worker’s safety as well as his or her ability to flexibly solve problems in the field or even innovate to create new solutions. And we perennially guard against any tendencies to place business interests above worker safety.

Thus in the harmonization process, Subcommittee 8 seeks to preserve flexibility in OSHA rules to ensure that workers have the leeway to employ the safest practices in the exact circumstances they face on the job. As so many variables are involved, each circumstance can be significantly different than others. Making safety rules too prescriptive can limit problem-solving in the service of safety.

It’s important to note that the harmonization process, from our standpoint, supports widespread adoption of safety best practices. Adoption requires culture change and that happens when workers believe that adoption of new practices actually enhances their safety. This point is important because many local and state jurisdictions are not bound by OSHA rules. Instead, those agencies look to the NESC for best practices and adopt them voluntarily.

Now let’s look at new revisions to the NESC and the process that produced them.

MAD AND FALL PROTECTION

Among the many revisions for the 2017 edition of the NESC, I’d like to call out two: Minimum Approach Distances (MAD) for electric and communication workers and requirements for fall protection. These two matters have returned to our attention due to OSHA revisions to 29 CFR. So we are, again, revising the NESC to harmonize with new and revised OSHA rules that were issued in spring 2014.

The MAD addresses electric and communications workers working in and around energized electric conductors. So much of our focus in Subcommittee 8 is about ensuring that those workers have clear, unequivocal rules for how to deal with their position in relationship to a 360-degree environment in the vicinity of