Is it maintenance or construction? That’s a question that was asked regularly by industry workers for many years. These days, we can thank David Wallis and the committee members who diligently worked on the OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V final rule published in 2014 for clearing things up.
To better understand the value of the final rule, let’s review some brief history of the two standards. In 1972, the construction standard for building transmission and distribution systems was completed. Did you notice there was no mention of generation in that standard? We will address that shortly. Nearly 20 years later, around 1992, the 1910.269 electric power generation, transmission and distribution standard was completed and published in the Code of Federal Regulations. That was a significant event since it had taken two decades of research by OSHA construction committees and an unknown number of stakeholder meetings in which utility end users, contractors, cooperatives, municipals and investor-owned utilities expressed their concerns.
However, the challenges had just begun when the 1910.269 standard was initially published in the early 1990s. There were differences of interpretations by various utility companies. That led to many letters of interpretation authored by OSHA, which continued to fuel the fire of confusion and misunderstandings. I still thank my lucky stars for my mentors who trained me and explained the differences between the operation and maintenance standard (1910.269) and the construction standard (1926 Subpart V) so that I understood them. Even now in 2020, I hear and receive questions from companies asking about the differences between the two regulations.
From the time the 1910.269 operation and maintenance standard came out in 1992 until the 2014 revision was published, there were defined differences between the maintenance and construction standards. Still, some questions now arise based on the name of the company the inquirer works for. For example, a customer will call me and ask, “I work for ABC Construction Co. Should we be following the 1926 Subpart V construction standard?” My response is to ask them a question: “What task are you performing?” One of the biggest misunderstandings with respect to the standards is that construction companies can and do perform work that is covered by the maintenance standard.
Generation was added to the mix in 1992. The construction of buildings and all equipment is covered by the 1926 construction standard until generation of electricity begins. The reality is, a generating plant is as close to an industrial manufacturing facility as you can get, with workers generating electricity rather than producing a product, tool or device. The work environment is more like a general industry application than a 1910.269 facility, yet the plant is a 1910.269 facility. Another major point is that the 1910.269 standard focuses primarily on coal-fired and hydro generating plants; there is small mention of gas turbines and nothing about solar or wind. That’s another article for another time.
Just the definition of “construction” versus the definition of “maintenance” has raised many questions. For example, with overhead distribution or transmission, if the task were changing out a pole or structure, that task would define which standard to abide by. Replacing a 25-kVA transformer with another 25-kVA transformer used to be a 1910.269 maintenance task. But if the crew had to change out the 25-kVA transformer to a 37.5-kVA transformer, that was considered infrastructure improvement, so it fell under the 1926 construction standard. The problem was that it also was a construction task performed in an energized 1910.269 maintenance environment. So, did we have to perform a job briefing before performing the maintenance task? Sometimes it was understood that if a construction company was working under the presumed 1926 construction standard, the 1910.269 maintenance standard requirement did not apply. The same applied to poles, structures and equipment in substations.
This caused much heartache and misunderstanding for utilities and contractors attempting to meet and follow the standards. As time went on, beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, the realization set in that there had to be some changes to eliminate this issue. Modifications would need to be made to the 1910.269 standard that would address dealing with contractor information exchange, fall protection, arc flash protection and minimum approach distances.
The NESC and OSHA
The National Electrical Safety Code published by IEEE is a utility industry consensus standard that provides utilities and contractors with construction specifications. IEEE members attended the OSHA preamble meetings along with utility representatives. As the preamble meetings went on, from 2005 to 2010, the obvious points causing confusion were discovered. The updated 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V standard was finally published in 2014 with necessary updates and changes. The beauty of it all was that OSHA’s David Wallis and the committees realized the need to merge the 1910.269 maintenance standard with the 1926 construction standard. By doing this, it all but eliminated the confusion between the two standards.
Another substantial point is that, since the 2017 revision of the NESC, Chapter 4 of the standard – which addresses safety and work practices when performing electric utility work – now restates what the 1910.269 and 1926 Subpart V standards require.
Today, the industry has solid documents to use as minimum safety standards. But we must remember the OSHA standards are just that – minimums. Employers use safety rules to protect employees performing hazardous tasks. The work becomes dangerous when workers fail to follow the minimums. Know the regulations, seek understanding and, if you are unsure, ask subject matter experts for advice and clear definitions.
About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.