Dated safety rule up for debate
A frequently cited U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule up for review highlights intersecting themes of politics, safety best practices and technology outpacing regulation.
OSHA’s lockout/tagout regulation, 1910.147, requires energy sources on machinery to be locked out so workers can safely service and maintain equipment. The regulation, adopted in 1989, was based largely on a standard written 10 years earlier by the American National Standards Institute.
Lockout and tagout procedures were developed to protect workers tasked with servicing or maintaining machinery that could suddenly start and potentially hurt or kill workers. Using lockout procedures, workers physically lock
energy sources with a padlock and hold the key in their pocket while performing work on the machine so that it can’t be started while they are working on it. Tagout uses tags attached to the energy source as a warning to others not to start the machine while the tag is in place.
The lockout/tagout regulation is annually one of OSHA’s top 10 most cited workplace safety violations and is one of the most difficult OSHA regulations for companies to comply with, experts say.
That’s because a complete lockout of machinery is often infeasible due to production limitations, or impossible because power is needed to perform the maintenance task.
In addition, technology has produced machinery that now can automatically interrupt power when gates and guards are opened, much like washing machine agitators are now designed to automatically stop when the machine lid is opened, said Lawrence Halprin, Washington-based partner with law firm Keller and Heckman L.L.P.
Whether such machinery still needs to be manually locked out when technology has created a potentially more reliable safety mechanism prompted both ANSI and OSHA to consider updates to their lockout/tagout requirements.
Last year, ANSI overhauled its lockout/tagout standard for the first time in almost two decades, doubling the information included in previous versions and incorporating a recognition that sophisticated machine guarding can outweigh the practice of traditional lockout procedures in some cases, said Todd Grover, global senior manager of applied safety solutions at Oak Creek, Wisconsin-based Master Lock Co. and an ANSI lockout/tagout committee member.
In addition, ANSI Z244.1 includes a large focus on alternative methods that permit partial lockout when justification and risk analyses indicate a complete lockout is not necessary to allow machines to be safely serviced.
Alternatives to locking out can include putting a machine into maintenance mode or slowing its pace to reduce the chance of a worker getting hurt, said Jim Schuster, CEO of Arvada, Coloradobased Martin Technical Inc., which provides industrial safety services and consulting for machine, lockout/tagout and electrical safety.
Early in the life of OSHA’s lockout/tagout regulation, an exception was added for minor servicing — such as changing a drill bit, clearing a jam or adjusting a mold — that might have to be done periodically throughout a typical day but would not require an entire machine to be locked out and production interrupted to safely perform the task, according to Mr. Halprin.
But the regulation has remained largely unchanged since it was initially adopted despite technology advances. Efforts to modify and update it remain on the agency’s agenda, although momentum on changes introduced during the Obama administration was halted earlier this year under a broader regulatory freeze ordered by President Donald Trump.
Eric Conn, chair of the workplace safety practice group at Washington-based law firm Conn Maciel Carey L.L.P., said the two OSHA initiatives on the agenda to modify the regulation are diametrically opposed. Under the Obama administration, the agency began an effort under Standards Improvement Project 4 to fix minor, noncontroversial issues in several existing regulations, including the lockout/tagout regulation. These issues typically include correcting typos, eliminating redundancies and clarifying vague language, he said.
In the most recent SIP process, OSHA proposed to remove the term “unexpected energization” from the lockout/tagout regulation in what Mr. Conn calls an abuse of the SIP process. The proposal, he said, is an attempt to overrule a 2015 federal court opinion in Secretary of Labor v. General Motors Corp., Delco Chassis Division in which willful lockout/tagout violations were overturned because the court said alarms and flashing lights provided sufficient warning of a machine starting up and removed the risk of unexpected energization.
Removing the reference to unexpected energization could potentially open employers up to more citations, said Mr. Conn, noting the change is likely to be finalized in the next year.
“From my perspective, this change would reduce employer flexibility in addressing machine hazards,” said Mr. Conn. “It’s eliminating one really well-established method of addressing hazardous energy, which is effective forewarning before the machine starts.” Also on OSHA’s agenda in the pre-rule phase is an effort to modernize the lockout/tagout regulation to allow employers to take advantage of modern technology and energy controls that will not result in full de-energization and would be an effective way to control hazardous energy, Mr. Conn said.
“I think OSHA does recognize this is a very hard standard for them to enforce, and they don’t want to penalize companies for practicing progressive safety strategies that technically conflict with regulations but nonetheless protect workers very effectively,” Mr. Grover said. “It’s a very hard standard to comply with from a regulatory standpoint. It sets up expectations without a good method to comply with the regulations, and that is why the OSHA regulation is so frequently cited as a problem companies have.”
OSHA intends to publish a Request for Information in April about potential updates to the standard and will consider modernizing the rule to include updates to the consensus standards.
“This administration and its inclination not to write new rules makes it a perfect time to fix old regulations,” said Mr. Halprin. “The technology has advanced so much that the current approach is backward, unproductive, causes some resentment, causes disparity. I’m optimistic sometime next year they will get to it.”