Over the years, I have been asked this question more times than I can count. Technically, the answer is “No”, but in reality, the answer is “Yes.”
That’s a frustrating answer. Like many of you, I am a black-and-white-kind-of guy. Gray areas frustrate me. When I ask a question, I want an answer. The answer to the question above sounds more like a political answer than a real answer. I wish it were more straight forward, but, unfortunately, it is not. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the regulations, standards, and laws of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA was formed in 1971 to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for workers and enforcement of standards through training, outreach, education, and assistance. OSHA is the law and it applies to most private sector employers.
Next, there is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which was formed in 1896 to address the design and installation of fire sprinkler systems. Soon after its formation, NFPA created the National Electrical Code. Since that time, NFPA has expanded guidance in other areas so that there are currently over 300 NFPA codes and standards in areas such as electrical installation and safety, healthcare codes, life safety codes, and emergency backup systems.
The primary difference is that OSHA is the law and NFPA is not. OSHA was created as an act of Congress, and is, therefore, enforceable by law. NFPA is not the law, but a private organization whose standards are recommendations on how to apply the law (OSHA standards).
The NFPA standard that addresses electrical safety is not the National Electrical Code (NEC). The NEC addresses general safety for the public benefit and fire prevention, but it is limited in how it addresses electrical safety for workers. The main electrical safety document is NFPA 70E – The Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. NFPA 70E addresses all areas of electrical safety for the worker, including Lockout – Tagout, Electrical Safety Programming, Personal Protective Equipment, shock prevention, and arc flash prevention. Regarding arc flash, NFPA 70E compliance requires that an arc flash risk assessment be performed that includes calculating the level of risk within the electrical equipment and ensuring awareness of the risk in the form of a warning label that contains the incident energy and flash hazard boundary on all electrical equipment above 50 volts.
As mentioned previously, NFPA is technically not the law. OSHA is the law, but OSHA does not specify the detailed requirements for arc flash hazards that NFPA 70E specifies. To put it simply, OSHA requires the employer to protect the employee from recognized hazards. In the electrical world, recognized hazards are shock, arc flash, and arc blast. The important point to remember is that although NFPA 70E is not enforceable by law, OSHA’s requirement that the employer protect workers from electrical hazards is the law. The question then becomes:
If you are not using NFPA 70E arc flash requirements to protect workers from the recognized hazard of arc flash, what are you doing?
According to OSHA’s website, while OSHA does not enforce NFPA 70E, OSHA may use NFPA 70E to support citations relating to OSHA standards. Remember, OSHA is the “shall” and NFPA 70E is the “how”. As of the current time, NFPA 70E has only been the “how” when it comes to OSHA enforcing electrical safety for workers and protection against arc flash. Therefore, the technical answer to the question, “Is an Arc Flash Risk Assessment required by OSHA?”, is “no”. The reality, however, is that NFPA 70E provides the only true road map for satisfying OSHA requirements for protecting against the recognized hazard of arc flash.
Future articles will explain the reasons for an arc flash risk assessment and the steps involved. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have any questions or comments, I can be reached at the email or phone number below.