By James L. Curtis and Craig B. Simonsen

After nearly nine years since its proposed rulemaking began, including substantial controversy, hearings, and public comments, OSHA has finally adopted its 428 page updated “Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution” rules. 79 Fed. Reg. 20316 (April 11, 2014).

The existing rules, now being replaced, were originally adopted in November 1972, over 40 years ago. 37 Fed. Reg. 24880 (Nov. 23, 1972). OSHA published the proposed rule nearly nine years ago, on June 15, 2005. 70 Fed. Reg. 34822. After receiving substantial public comments, and a public hearing on the proposal, OSHA reopened the record on October 22, 2008 (73 Fed. Reg. 62942), and then again on September 14, 2009 (74 Fed. Reg. 46958). Seemingly forgotten or overlooked, it is now nearly five years later, and finally the final rule has just published.

According to Dr. David Michaels, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, “electric utilities, electrical contractors and labor organizations have persistently championed these much-needed measures to better protect the men and women who work on or near electrical power lines.” Dr. Michaels noted that “this long-overdue update will save nearly 20 lives and prevent 118 serious injuries annually.”

The final rule estimates that an average of 74 fatalities and 444 serious injuries occur annually among employees performing work involving electric power generation, transmission, and distribution. 79 Fed. Reg. 20318. These workers were exposed to a variety of hazards, including fall, electric shock, and burn hazards. OSHA further clarifies that the new rule explains certain “confusing parts of the regulations.” It points specifically to Wisconsin Elec. Power Co. v. OSHRC, 567 F.2d 735, 738 (7th Cir. 1977) (‘‘[r]evision of the regulations by any competent draftsman would greatly improve their clarity’’).

The updated standards include new or revised sections for host and contract employers to share safety-related information with each other, and with employees. Sections for improved fall protection for employees working from aerial lifts and on overhead line structures are included. In addition, the standards adopt revised approach-distance requirements “to better ensure that unprotected workers do not get dangerously close to energized lines and equipment.” The final rules also add new requirements meant to protect workers from electric arcs.

It is important now for employers, whether host or contract, to look at their existing policies, procedures, and training programs, conceivably currently based on a 40 year old rule, to get them updated for this significant new rule. Especially since the final rule is effective on July 10, 2014, except for certain provisions that have later compliance deadlines.