Q: Our plant safety committee has a longtime rule requiring electrical hazard safety shoes for our electricians. We were recently told by an auditor that we have to pay for those shoes if we require employees to wear them. We found the OSHA rule requiring payment, but now we wonder if we are really required to use the shoes. Can you help us figure it out?
A: Sure, we can help. But first, please note that Incident Prevention and the consultants who have reviewed this Q&A are not criticizing a rule or recommending a rule change for any employer. What we do in these pages is explain background, intent and compliance issues for workers and employers in the workplace.
You mentioned a longtime rule that probably dates back to the early OSHA rules that required electrical hazard boots for electricians. We can’t remember exactly when, but there was a letter to administrators in the early 1990s and subsequent rule-making that changed the language on the use of electrical hazard shoes. Your auditor is right; if you require employees to wear them, you are required to pay for them because unlike regular safety shoes, the electrical hazard criterion makes the safety shoe a specialty shoe. Specialty shoes must be provided at no cost to the employee (see www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=INTERPRETATIONS&p_id=29825).
Now let’s address the question, are the shoes required? Employers are required to perform a workplace hazard assessment and then use engineering or procedural controls to eliminate hazards. If a hazard cannot be eliminated by procedures or engineering, PPE is required. OSHA agrees throughout current literature that electrical hazard shoes are to be employed as part of a system of protection based on the hierarchy of controls. If you read the rule closely, you will see that the language is very particular. OSHA 29 CFR 1910.136(a) – edited here for clarity and space – states that the “employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses protective footwear … when the use of protective footwear will protect the affected employee from an electrical hazard, such as … electric-shock hazard, that remains after the employer takes other necessary protective measures.” Those other measures are the hierarchy first, PPE last.