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August 2015 Q&A

Q: I’m wondering about an issue with a third-party safety analysis required by one of our clients. We are required to satisfy their safety requirements, including creating programs and safety manual changes worded to meet their criteria. I have issues with the required changes because they don’t fit into our safety program.

A: You are not alone in your concerns. OSHA issued a warning about this exact topic, and it was a reason for changing the language in the proposed rules from June 2005. In the proposed rule, 29 CFR 1926.950(c) required contractors to follow a utility’s work rules as if they were statutory OSHA rules. Further, in the preamble to the proposed rules, OSHA clearly indicated the intent of the new rule’s language was to leverage utilities under the Multi-Employer Citation Policy in order to improve contractor safety. All of this created a concern for utilities that gave rise to third-party evaluations. The purpose seems to be both a means of qualifying the contractor and also providing a buffer between the contractor’s performance and the utility’s newly proposed responsibilities. For those readers who are not familiar with this process, the third party signs on to represent the utility in the evaluation of contractors. The utility also signs on to the process. The utility’s contractors, or proposed contractors, pay to join the third-party program and work to attain an acceptable rating for their safety program.

As it turned out, OSHA thought better of the proposed rule. On pages 20365-20366 of the preamble to the final rule (see, the agency explains that it is the employer who is responsible for their employees. Further, a utility imposing rules on a contractor may or may not meet the standard and could jeopardize or even confuse the contractor’s personnel by imposing rules that contradict the contract employer’s safety policy.

What we have learned is that, in some instances, third parties require written programs specifying required criteria and language. In fact, that process has the effect of nullifying the performance nature of standards that allow employers several methods for compliance. Third parties even demand statements within a written protocol requiring procedures for tasks the contractor may not perform. Based on questions Incident Prevention has received, and in our own experience, we find that third-party companies are imposing requirements to write or create safety policies to satisfy the safety rating for the record. When a third party is coaching an employer on how and what to write, they are creating the appearance of safety where safety may not actually exist. We have learned that there are contractors doing whatever it takes to get qualified so they can bid on work. There could be value in this process, but our assessment is not very favorable.

Ultimately, even legitimately safe contractors will have to navigate these third-party providers to do business while at the same time assuring the safety of their crews and personnel. The process does exactly what OSHA declined to do: It compels the contract employer to adopt safety rules of another entity – either the utility or the third party. If you follow the requirements of these third parties, remember that you, as the employer, are responsible for the safety program as well as the methods of compliance for the safety of your people. OSHA won’t be knocking on the door of the third party’s agent if something goes wrong on your job.

Q: We are debating how we should document the transfer of information to our contractors. What are the pros and cons and the best way to do it?

A: You are referring to OSHA rule 1910.269(a)(3)(i), which states that, before work begins, the host employer shall inform contract employers of conditions related to the safety of the work to be performed; information about the design and operation of the host employer’s installation; and any other information about the design and operation of the installation that is known by the host employer, that the contract employer requests and that is related to the protection of the contract employer’s employees.

There are a couple notes to the rule that spell out where this information comes from and to what extent the host employer has to go to get the required information. However, the means of communication are explained on page 20362 of the preamble to the final rule. On that page, OSHA states that the agency will “deem it sufficient for the host employer to provide the necessary information, through any appropriate mechanism (for example, a phone call or an email), to an authorized agent of the contractor.”

Obviously, some information – like fault current schedules – may be easily communicated through written files as a matter of convenience, and some legal opinions may suggest that documentation of the information transfer is required by the intent of the rule. The legal opinion may have some merit because, after all, how do you document that you are in compliance without a written record? The problem lies in the documentation process. It’s easy to document a written transfer of information at the pre-job conference, but what happens when the contracting department is done with the pre-job meeting and the inspectors take over? If you choose to document the process using a written transmittal method, it has to be consistent throughout the job. If it isn’t consistent, you may find yourself creating a paper trail that suggests you don’t transfer information since you can only show documentation for some communications.

Don’t forget that information transfer between host and contractor requires communication of that information to the contractor’s workforce. The OSHA requirement does not specify the means, but to demonstrate they are in compliance, the contract employer must be able to show they communicated the safety information to their crews. Such documentation could be, for example, records of safety meetings, direct project safety publications or a health and safety site-specific plan.

We recently polled a few utilities and found that most hold a pre-job conference and, in the process, conduct an oral review of topics required in the information transfer. The meeting minutes note who was present and that the discussion was held. If you are under a state plan, you should check to see if your state has prescribed specific requirements. However, according to OSHA’s commentary in the preamble, the pre-job conference as previously described would meet the expectation of the rule.

Q: Sunburn is a health issue, so if employees work outside, are their employers required to provide them sunscreen to help protect against sunburn?

A: That’s an easy assumption to make, and if you read OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132(a), you might interpret sunburn as a workplace hazard and sunscreen as PPE. That OSHA paragraph states, “Protective equipment, including personal protective equipment for eyes, face, head, and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers, shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment …”

The standard also requires that the employer pay for the PPE provided. And even though the standard specifically provides rules for hard hats and eye, face and foot protection, it demands that employers survey for hazards and protect employees accordingly.

However, if you read on, you will find that the standard provides a list of items the employer is not required to pay for. According to paragraph 1910.132(h)(4)(iii), these items include “ordinary clothing, skin creams, or other items, used solely for protection from weather, such as winter coats, jackets, gloves, parkas, rubber boots, hats, raincoats, ordinary sunglasses, and sunscreen.” And yes, despite this exception, you do have to pay for a winter coat if it serves as the outer layer of arc protective clothing in an energized environment.

So, OSHA does not require employers to provide sunscreen to employees, and we feel there are a couple good reasons for that. One reason is that, if not properly applied, the effectiveness of sunscreen is reduced. Another reason is that employers don’t have to address whether it’s a good idea to require employees to spread chemicals on their bodies. OSHA hasn’t explained the reasoning behind their decision, but they did clarify that sunscreen is not PPE to be supplied by the employer. That does not mean that you can’t provide it to employees, only that you are not required to.

Finally, from a workforce safety point of view, we believe that education on the long-term effects of sun exposure and how to protect yourself should be a part of employee safety training.

Q: If it’s so easy to get hurt in series with an overhead neutral, why have we been splicing cable in the ground for 50 years but not getting shocked or electrocuted when we bare-hand the concentric connection?

A: That’s a good question, and the answer is pretty simple. First, let’s make sure readers don’t use this discussion as an assumption that there is no risk because there is risk. But the reality is there is a logical reason, if not a theoretical one, why we have few incidents with open URD neutrals. Let’s also admit that the reason we take precautions in overhead that we don’t take in URD may be that it’s simply easier to take those precautions in overhead. In reality, overhead risks are no different than the risks of open neutrals in URD. Following is an explanation about why that’s the case.

Most URD circuits are loops, and most single-phase cables are part of a three-phase underground system. This explanation requires that you understand the principles of current flow, in particular that current flows in every available path inversely proportional to the resistance of the path. If you are repairing an open cable in a trench, your concentric is in parallel with the other concentrics in the trench or even in different trenches. In that configuration, those other concentrics are acting like jumpers around your open. All three cables are sharing the neutral current. In many cases the other two concentrics are acting like a bypass jumper you might install across an open overhead neutral. The difference is that the other two concentrics are not visibly right there at the open neutral you are working with. In fact, the other two neutrals are not making the gap absolutely without hazard. All three are sharing current, so there will be the potential for current to flow. However, remember that it takes at least 50 volts to break the electrical resistance of your skin. In most cases that voltage across that open is too low to create the voltage necessary for the current to flow across your body, especially with non-jacketed cable. As long as the parallel concentrics are in good shape and the grounds on the neutrals are well-made, the voltage will remain low. In fact, one of our consulting experts, addressing this very question, made voltage measurements across open neutrals on operating systems. The voltage was so low as to not be measureable on a Fluke 77 VOM. Still, be warned that this is not foolproof. All it takes is another bad cable, or bad connections in other parts of the circuit, and the gap in your hands becomes deadly.

Do you have a question regarding best practices, work procedures or other utility safety-related topics? If so, please send your inquiries directly to Questions submitted are reviewed and answered by the iP editorial advisory board and other subject matter experts.

Safety Management, Worksite Safety, underground

Jim Vaughn, CUSP

After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at