Train the Trainer 101: Telcom Workers Don’t Need FR – Or Do They?
The question that is the title of this installment of “Train the Trainer 101” originally came to me from a client during safety training for the company’s distribution employees. The client is a T&D contractor with a telecommunications (telcom) division. And yes, the question was regarding arc flash, which is not the same thing as FR. To utility workers, FR formerly meant “flash resistant.” The acronym FR was stolen from the utility industry by the road construction industry for traffic safety vests and now has come to stand for “flame resistant.” Flame resistance is the quality of a material designed for protection from exposure to fire or flame, not electrical arcs. OSHA, which does not use “FR” in the standards, requires that arc flash protective clothing also must be flame resistant to ensure clothing does not continue to burn after exposure to an electrical arc. In addition, flame resistance is required for the outer layer of clothing worn by an electrical worker who could be exposed to a heat source that could ignite that outer layer. There has been confusion, so it is important to recognize that use of the term “FR” on a traffic vest label does not mean the vest is arc protective; it is only flame resistant, meaning it has resistance to burning and will not continue to burn if the flame exposure is removed. It’s a habit to use the term FR when referring to arc flash protective gear, but we all need to understand the difference in labeling.
Now, back to the initial question. My first thought upon hearing it was that telcom workers are not required to use FR. After all, telcom is regulated by OSHA 29 CFR 1910.268, and 1910.268 does not require arc protective clothing like the 1910.269 standard does. But the answer doesn’t end there. So, if you are in the telcom business, don’t stop reading here. This is a lesson on interpretation of the standards as much as it is an answer to the question, who is required to wear arc flash protection?
Over the years, I have been asked dozens of times about who should don arc flash protective clothing. We have even discussed the issue in the “Q&A” section of Incident Prevention magazine as recently as October 2017 (see https://incident-prevention.com/blog/october-2017-q-a), regarding the exposure of civil workers excavating in substations. That question, like the question about telcom workers, came about because OSHA does not address those specific issues in the regulations. Employers often are found not in compliance with OSHA simply because the employers’ specific issues are not addressed. This is where knowledge of the OSHA standards, and knowledge of the intent of the OSHA standards and consensus standards, is so important for safety professionals.
The Telecommunications Standard
Let’s start where almost everyone trying to answer the telcom/arc flash question would start: the 1910.268 telecommunications standard. This might get a little tedious to read, but it’s important, so hang in there. The telcom standard covers telcom workers from all aspects of the communications industry – wired and non-wired, center work and field work. It often addresses working in proximity to distribution voltages, which are low-voltage exposures. The 1910.268 standard also covers risers, streetlights and other pole-mounted components; checking for potential differences between those components; and temporary bonding for worker protection. In addition, the standard discusses when rubber gloves are required (see 1910.268(b)(7)(i)), as well as cover and barrier use to protect telcom workers (see 1910.268(b)(7)(ii) and 1910.268(f)). The 1910.268 standard even refers to training and use of rubber insulating equipment, directing the employer to part 1910.137, “Electrical Protective Equipment,” the same standard followed by qualified electric utility workers. Yet even with all of those requirements and references, the 1910.268 standard does not refer to arc flash hazards or arc flash protective clothing. Often when OSHA is silent on a particular exposure, employers think that means there is no applicable standard they need to follow. They are wrong.
There is a rule in 1910.268 that can be interpreted as a requirement for arc protective wear if you read it carefully, which means looking up the included reference, a key activity frequently ignored. Rule 1910.268(a)(3) states, “Operations or conditions not specifically covered by this section are subject to all the applicable standards contained in this part 1910. See §1910.5(c).” Section 1910.5(c) is a header reference, meaning that all references following, as applicable, will apply to the workplace. In this case, 1910.5(c) has two subparagraphs, (c)(1) and (c)(2).
Rule 1910.5(c)(2) states that “… any standard shall apply according to its terms to any employment and place of employment in any industry, even though particular standards are also prescribed for the industry, as in subpart B or subpart R of this part, to the extent that none of such particular standards applies.” The “particular standards” referred to are those vertical standards such as 1910.268. Standard 1910.268, which falls under Subpart R, particularly applies to the unique workplace exposures of the telcom industry, just like 1910.269 – which also falls under Subpart R – applies to the unique exposures of electrical generation, transmission and distribution workers. In plain language, rule 1910.268(a)(3) means that exposures (conditions) not covered in 1910.268 are subject to any applicable standards in 1910.269. The task for the employer now is to determine how to find out which other standards might apply. That brings us back to hazard analysis.
In the case of the contractor that raised the title question – do telcom workers need FR? – workers had twice experienced secondary arc flash near their communications equipment in the previous six months. The safety committee at the contractor could not agree on whether that constituted a hazard because one, no one was burned, and two, arc protective wear was not required by either 1910.268 or their company safety manual. The contractor’s safety department was leaning toward arc flash protection, and they were probably right. In the contractor’s case, they were working with CATV mounted on strand within reach of secondary conductors in residential neighborhoods. The older secondary installation was worn and likely poorly insulated. Disturbance of the structure got conductors together and a flash occurred.
The contractor’s safety department was following through on their responsibility to protect both the workers and the employer. Even though the contractor’s work standards were in compliance with the 1910.268 standard and intended to keep telcom workers isolated from electrical exposures, rules on paper cannot foresee every scenario. In these cases, work procedures and clearances followed by the telcom workers didn’t prevent a secondary flash in proximity to the workers. And considering that the incidents occurred previously, and the conditions of construction were not likely to improve, it was a certainty that a secondary flash could reoccur. Once a hazard has been identified, even if it is not covered in the OSHA standard, the employer must act to limit the risk of exposure. Since telcom workers are not qualified electrical workers with the ability to assess acute hazards and cannot rework energized secondary, the possibility of another incident should be considered as likely. At a minimum, the employer would be expected to provide additional training specific to the nature of the risk and PPE commensurate to the exposure. That obligation comes from the General Duty Clause. A General Duty Clause violation is based on the employer’s knowledge of the risk and awareness that remediation is available.
OSHA has a policy for violations covered under the General Duty Clause, described as follows in a 2003 letter of interpretation to Mr. Milan Racic of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (see www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2003-12-18-1): “Employers can be cited for violation of the General Duty Clause if a recognized serious hazard exists in their workplace and the employer does not take reasonable steps to prevent or abate the hazard. The General Duty Clause is used only where there is no standard that applies to the particular hazard. The following elements are necessary to prove a violation of the General Duty Clause: a. The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which employees of that employer were exposed; b. The hazard was recognized; c. The hazard was causing or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm; and d. There was a feasible and useful method to correct the hazard.”
It boils down to three things: 1. Employers are expected to know what hazards exist in the workplace. It is not enough to read the OSHA standards and construct your safety manual to show compliance with the standards. 2. Just because you are a member of a particular workplace covered by a particular vertical standard does not mean that you may ignore the rest of the standards followed by everybody else. 3. If the employer has actual or constructive knowledge that a hazard exists, they must take suitable action to limit the exposure to employees.
And finally, the answer to the title question is yes; under certain conditions, telcom workers may be required by OSHA to don arc protective outerwear for their protection. As the employer, you must examine the workplace and be able to justify the procedures and protections in place to ensure a workplace free of recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.
I hope 2019 will be a stellar year for you and safety in your workplace. The goal at Incident Prevention is to help make that happen. Feel free to contact me with your comments and questions.
About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 20 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.