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Robotics technology shift prompts new look at old OSHA rule

Factory robots

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration may revamp its 30-year-old lockout/tagout standard that aims to prevent employees from being injured by the unexpected startup of machines in light of the increasing use of robotics technology in the workplace, experts say.

An OSHA request for comments issued May 17 is only the beginning of what would be a lengthy process to revise the standard, but stakeholders are generally supportive of the agency taking another look at its lockout/tagout requirements.

“There are very few downsides for the agency collecting information,” said Brian Hendrix, Washington-based partner with Husch Blackwell LLP, which provides OSHA defense for employers. “There is always that challenge of evolution (of) the equipment, the practices, the engineering controls (and) OSHA is paying attention to that and trying to understand that.”

“I would hope that the agency understands the risk and the evolution of technology before it changes (the standard) … and that’s what this is,” he added.

Daniel C. Deacon, a Washington-based associate with Conn Maciel Carey LLP, called the timing for the request surprising — but not the request itself. OSHA has been “hinting” it would address lockout/tagout in upcoming rulemaking for at least a year, he said.

OSHA on May 13 issued several revisions in a standards improvement project aimed at removing or revising outdated or unnecessary requirements, but specifically did not alter the lockout/tagout rule that dictates the safety protocol for properly shutting down dangerous machines for maintenance work.

In earlier documents, OSHA had proposed to remove the word “unexpected” from the application of the standard applying to the “unexpected energization or startup of machines or equipment,” arguing that the word “unexpected” could lead to confusion following an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission decision in 1995 — affirmed by a federal appeals court in 1996 — that found the lockout/tagout standard did not apply where a startup procedure for a machine provided a warning to the worker servicing it that it was about to start, according to Reich v. General Motors Corp., Delco Chassis Div..

OSHA received 155 comments on that proposal with all but seven opposed to OSHA’s removal of the word “unexpected” in the rule, according to OSHA’s summary on the standards improvement project-phase IV.

Four days after issuing the final standard improvement revisions that omitted changes to lockout/tagout, the agency made a public call for comments on possibly updating the standard.

“OSHA is requesting information about how employers have been using control circuit devices, including information about the types of circuitry and safety procedures being used; limitations of their use, to determine under what other conditions control circuit-type devices could be used safely; new risks of worker exposure to hazardous energy as a result of increased interaction with robots; and whether the agency should consider changes to the LOTO standard that would address these new risks,” the announcements stated. Comments are due by Aug. 18.

Much of the inquiry has to do with robotics and other technology, according to Rob Adams, Boston-based senior vice president with workforce strategy and board-certified safety professional with Marsh LLC.

“There have been significant increases in not just the types of robots used but that the smaller facilities with less staffing and less sophisticated engineering, even they are starting to use robotics,” said Mr. Adams. “With technology starting to filter down to the smaller companies… there are a lot of pieces in (lockout/tagout) that could be updated.”

With “significant hazards” associated with the energization of equipment, the move to reevaluate the rule in light of technology could be a good one, said Peg Seminario, Washington-based director of occupational safety and health for The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a federation of unions.

“We have to ask what alternative systems might be appropriate and how do you deal with lockout/tagout hazards with the restarting of robots?” she said. “This will need a lot of input before OSHA proceeds and so they are taking this first step.”

Experts estimate the rule-making process could take up to five years.

Yet the uncertainty associated with an upcoming presidential election could stall movement on changes to lockout/tagout, said Avi Meyerstein, a Washington-based partner with Husch Blackwell. “Even if they go through with the process it is unclear how (OSHA) will get through (it),” he said.

Angela Childers contributed to this report.




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