Q: We hear lots of opinions on whether a lineworker can lift a hot-line clamp that has a load on it. There is a rule that says disconnects must be rated for the load they are to break. We’ve been doing it forever. Are we breaking an OSHA rule or not?
A: Incident Prevention has answered this question before, but it won’t hurt to revisit it and use the opportunity to explain how OSHA analyzes a scenario to see if it’s a violation. Most objections to operating a hot-line clamp (HLC) under load are based on OSHA 29 CFR 1910.269(l)(12)(i), which states that the “employer shall ensure that devices used by employees to open circuits under load conditions are designed to interrupt the current involved.” There are some utilities that prohibit operating HLCs energized, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our purpose at iP is not to judge an employer’s operational rules but to enlighten and educate the industry.
On its face, the rule seems to prohibit use of an HLC to break load. Anybody could also argue, then, that any operation of an HLC must be dead-break since HLC manufacturers offer no load-break value at all. However, there are several facets to analyze in this scenario. First, if a non-rated HLC cannot be lifted under load, how about a drop-out switch? We operate those thousands of times a day without injury to the employee, although sometimes an ill-advised operation does smoke a pole top. There is nothing in the rules that prohibits an employer from making an engineering-based decision establishing criteria or protocols for operating HLCs or drop-outs under certain load conditions. Primarily, the employer’s determination would be based on risk to the employee and risk to the equipment. For OSHA, the primary consideration would be risk to the employee. Just as in the working alone rule, if the device is operated by a hot stick from a position that prevented injury to the employee, there would be no violation. Second, what would be the solution in the scenario? If the solution required installing a mechanical jumper and installing a load-break switch, would such an operation add risk exposure to the crew, and would adding the switch really enhance the safety of the operation? At the very worst case, the scenario – operating the HLC under load – could be ruled a de minimis violation. De minimis is the level of violation where OSHA recognizes that a direct rule was violated, but there was no other way, or no safer way, of executing the required task, and there was no risk to the employee.