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February-March 2018 Q&A

Editor’s Note: This installment of “Q&A” addresses some common questions Incident Prevention receives throughout the year. Most are misunderstandings of the wording or intent of OSHA standards. From time to time iP has addressed the following scenarios – or similar ones – because they never seem to go away. In the following answers, the research or interpretation methods employed have been summarized to help readers become more familiar with interpretation and construction of the standards.

Q: Does OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(l)(12), “Opening and closing circuits under load,” prohibit the use of non-load-break dropout fused switches or lifting of hot-line clamps to break loads? The rule reads as follows: “(i) The employer shall ensure that devices used by employees to open circuits under load conditions are designed to interrupt the current involved. (ii) The employer shall ensure that devices used by employees to close circuits under load conditions are designed to safely carry the current involved.”

A: This rule often is mischaracterized as prohibiting opening or closing under load using a non-load-break switch or a bare hot-line clamp. The rule does prohibit opening or closing a switch or hot-line clamp (“device”) under load if the employee performing the task could be injured by the act. If the employee can safely perform the act, there is no violation. To explain, there are two keys to properly interpreting this rule. One is the location of the rule; it is found in 1910.269(l), “Working on or near exposed energized parts.” The purpose of the paragraph is protection of employees, as stated in the section following the title: “This paragraph applies to work on exposed live parts, or near enough to them to expose the employee to any hazard they present.”

When OSHA reviews potential violations of the standard, they typically consider three issues: if there was a rule in place, if the employer knew about the rule and if an employee was exposed to danger by violating the rule. OSHA also will review consensus standards and best practices, as well as unadopted consensus standards, which sometimes are used in de minimis conditions and General Duty Clause violations. We know this because when we read public notice citations, we find unadopted consensus standard language used in the notice of violation without reference to the unadopted standard.

Returning to the intent of the standard, in this case, 1910.269(l) addresses intent to prevent injury to employees. In the case of non-load-break dropout switches that repeatedly have been opened under load using hot sticks, without injury, the case for safety is not hard to argue.

Most utility safety procedures include some limits of guidance on lifting hot-line clamps, simply to prevent damage to stirrups or hot-line clamp jaws that result in hot-spots and continuing problems. We are aware that some utilities generally prohibit operating hot-line clamps under load, but we are not aware of any utilities that prohibit opening of dropouts. In many cases, dropouts come with load-break tool hooks. Load-break tools typically are used on unswitched capacitor banks and heavier loaded banked transformers. Still, all these tools and devices are operated from the safety of a switch-stick or shotgun. The hazards and techniques to safely open a switch or lift a hot-line clamp have been understood since Tips Tool Co. delivered the first clamp-stick and hot-line clamp in 1918.

Finally, an obscure answer to a question sent to OSHA March 26, 1996, by Mr. Michael L. Harbaugh supports the employer’s argument for safety in opening non-load-rated switches or taps (see In response to Question 26, OSHA reviewed the reasons for load-break and hazards that exist if a non-rated switch should fail in operation. However, OSHA stated the following in the last part of their response: “[T]he employer would not be cited for a violation of paragraph 1910.269(l)(10) when employees are not exposed to the hazards involved. This would be the case if the non-load-break disconnecting device was operated from a remote position from where the employee using the device nor other employees could not be injured in the event the device failed.”

Q: Are the insulated elbows in a pad-mounted dead-front transformer considered insulated for the purpose of employee protection?

A: The answer to your question is yes and no.

Anyone who reads the OSHA literature or rules knows OSHA qualifies “insulating” and “insulation” differently according to the application. The agency’s 1910.269 standard includes section (x), “Definitions.” This is not the first place everyone goes when they are trying to understand OSHA rules, but it should be near the top of the list of research resources. Here are two definitions from the standard, one of “insulated” and the other of “insulation,” that apply to the question:

  • “Insulated. Separated from other conducting surfaces by a dielectric (including air space) offering a high resistance to the passage of current. Note to the definition of ‘insulated’: When any object is said to be insulated, it is understood to be insulated for the conditions to which it normally is subjected. Otherwise, it is, for the purpose of this section, uninsulated.”
  • “Insulation (cable). Material relied upon to insulate the conductor from other conductors or conducting parts or from ground.” It is worthwhile to note here that the definition does not say “making it safe to touch.”

To further confuse the issue, 1910.269(t) allows moving cables by hand after inspecting them, stating the following in paragraph (t)(6), “Moving cables”: “Except when paragraph (t)(7)(ii) of this section permits employees to perform work that could cause a fault in an energized cable in a manhole or vault, the employer shall ensure that employees inspect energized cables to be moved for abnormalities.” Part (t)(7) provides a listing of observations and practices designed to minimize risks for failing cable. Despite the provisions of (t)(7), we say you should not move energized primary cable. De-energize it instead.

Now, back to the question of elbows. Manufacturers refer to dead-front elbows as insulated. Using the definition provided by OSHA, that would mean “for the conditions to which [they] normally [are] subjected.” However, throughout all the manufacturers’ literature about dead-front terminals for installation and operation, it is repeated that energized elbows must not be touched, as they pose a risk of serious injury or death. The literature does not include exceptions such as using rubber gloves; it simply states not to touch energized elbows. It would seem, then, that the conditions to which they normally are subjected, by manufacturer instruction, would include not being touched. That instruction alone is basis for a policy or procedure prohibiting contact. Manufacturers also instruct users to follow state, federal and industry consensus practices for safely operating the devices.

Lastly, there is one interpretation available that seems to follow the observations made so far. Our research once again led us to a request for interpretation submitted to OSHA by Mr. Michael L. Harbaugh, dated April 25, 2006 (see In their response, OSHA mentions a number of issues with the integrity of the insulation of elbows, including issues with leaking and poorly functioning drain wires that compromise the safety of the insulating elbow, providing this instruction to Mr. Harbaugh: “Consequently, OSHA generally considers the elbow as not safe to touch with bare hands, and the employee would have to maintain a minimum approach distance of ‘avoid contact.’”

Q: What is the difference between “covered” and “insulated,” and what is the purpose of a barrier for electrical contact protection?

A: Here is an opportunity to see the value of 1910.269(x). Part (x) definitions do not cover every topic, but they do well for this particular series of issues.

The definition of “covered conductor” in part (x) reads as follows: “A conductor covered with a dielectric having no rated insulating strength or having a rated insulating strength less than the voltage of the circuit in which the conductor is used.” This would include insulated primary conductors, which is a misnomer. They are not truly insulated – they are covered. Tree wire is another covered conductor. We may refer to it as insulated, but it is not shielded, and it is mounted on insulators because in the presence of a ground, it will go to ground eventually. With age, these covers are even more likely to leak. Handling of covered conductors is addressed in 1910.269(l)(10), “Covered (noninsulated) conductors.” The requirements of this section that pertain to the hazards of exposed live parts also apply when an employee performs work in proximity to covered (noninsulated) wires. In other words, MAD and cover-up are required.

A barrier is defined in part (x) as a “physical obstruction that prevents contact with energized lines or equipment or prevents unauthorized access to a work area.” The most likely or common use of barriers is in substations, where barriers may be placed in the air gap of an open switch to prevent access to the other side of the switch by workers servicing the dead side.

Q: We are conducting a yearlong project from a central location and put golf carts on the yard as an inexpensive means to move people across the 30 acres of lay-down, storage, parking and office facilities. Our safety officers indicated that the carts must have seat belts and rollover protective structures, or they cannot be used. We argue that golf carts don’t come with seat belts and they do have a frame and roof. Who is right?

A: Well, the safety officer is right, of course – almost. It is true that golf carts don’t come with seat belts, but it also is true that OSHA does not regulate golf courses. If you put a golf cart in a workplace to transport people, it must have seats and seat belts. As to the rollover protective structure, the rules on these structures are found in 1926 Subpart W, which covers construction and excavation equipment. Both Subpart W and 1926.602 require seat belts. In Subpart W, seat belts are not required on equipment that does not require a rollover protective structure. This is likely the misinterpretation for golf carts. Seat belts are required on all vehicles transporting persons whether they are on the right-of-way, the yard or the road.

A three-quarter-inch square-tube fabricated frame for a roof on a golf cart is not a rollover protective structure, but that does not excuse or create an exception for seat belts. A golf cart with seat belts could legally be used on an OSHA-covered worksite without a rollover protective structure as long as the terrain is flat and stable. If the travel-ways for the golf cart are rough and steep, leading to the possibility of a rollover, the golf cart would have to be equipped with an engineered rollover protective structure.

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.

Q & A

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