NESC: A New Century of Focus on Worker Safety
Last 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 energized lines and equipment.
With regard to fall protection, linemen historically have climbed power poles without special restraints or fall protection gear. They’d put on their gaffs and gloves, climb up to where repairs are needed, put their safety strap around the pole, and go to work. Today, the culture has changed; “free climbing,” as we call it, is becoming a thing of the past. That’s a huge culture change. Utilities already are making that change and now OSHA requirements and revised Part 4 rules require linemen and communication technicians to employ a fall-restraint device at all times.
HISTORY AND THE PROCESS
Work on the NESC began in 1913 and it was first published the following year. A detailed history of the NESC is found at https://standards.ieee.org/ about/nesc/100/nesc_history.pdf.
The NESC is structured to reflect “parts,” “sections,” and “rules.” The four main parts include: Part I: electric supply station rules, Part 2: overhead line rules, Part 3: underground line rules, and Part 4: work rules.
To address a five-year cycle for code revisions, subcommittees meet regularly. Anyone—even an interested citizen —can suggest a proposed change to the NESC. It’s my job as secretary of Subcommittee 8 to ensure that every proposed change is properly considered. All of our Subcommittee meetings and the decision-making process is recorded and transparent. Subcommittee work is accomplished by consensus, which transcends individual viewpoints and the concerns expressed by industry groups. “Do the right thing for the worker” is our mantra. In my own experience over the past 12 years, I can say unequivocally that the worker is the clear priority and business concerns take a backseat.
I also serve as vice chair on ASTM International’s Committee F-18 on Electrical Protective Equipment for Workers, which is charged with the manufacturer and in-service testing of protective tools and equipment for electrical workers. The Committee works with the clothing industry and tool manufacturers that build line belts, gaffs, FR (flame resistant) clothing, hot sticks, rubber gloves, etc. And we develop the material tests for that equipment, so that workers who use them know the ASTM F-18 stamp or label means the gear is tested and safe. I also work on NFPA 70E, which is safety code for the workplace focused on electricians working in buildings, plants, and similar environments. I mention these affiliations because you should know that my broad involvement in worker safety, like that of my colleagues, pays dividends in the development of effective NESC work rules.
Dedicated men and women are working methodically through IEEE-SA, the NESC subcommittees, and other organizations to take a holistic and multi-faceted view of best practices and high-integrity equipment for those who work in and around power lines and electrical systems. The five-year revision cycle for the NESC is the outcome of this sustained, methodical effort to focus squarely on worker safety. The harmonization process, as noted, seeks to preserve flexibility and to enable problem-solving and flexible thinking on the job. As someone who has been intimately involved in these processes, I can assure linemen and electrical workers that we have your back.
Sam Stonerock serves as an Edison Electric Institute (EEI) principal representative and secretary for NESC Subcommittee 8 on Work Rules and is also a member of IEEE’s Power and Energy Society and Industry Applications Society. He has served as Southern California Edison’s principal representative on transmission and distribution and as second vice chair for ASTM International’s Committee F-18 on Electrical Protective Equipment for Workers. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association and ASTM F18’s Voting Alternate for Committee 70-E on Electrical Safety in the Workplace. He chairs California’s General Order 95/128 Rules Committee and is a 29-year employee of Southern California Edison, with a work history in distribution construction, contract development and administration, T&D standards development, and state and national regulatory support.