As manufacturing technology has evolved, the industry has long waited for OSHA regulations to catch up. In particular, lockout/tagout requirements (LOTO) have never allowed the latest control circuit technologies to protect workers. In addition, until now, OSHA has not addressed safety issues involving the latest wave of robotics in the workplace. That change now appears to be underway.

Last week, OSHA published a request for information (RFI) on “The Control of Hazardous Energy (Lockout/Tagout).” It acknowledges that since OSHA published its LOTO rule in 1989, times have changed. Currently, companies must manually lock out or tag out power and energy sources from a machine before an employee performs servicing or maintenance where unexpected startup could cause harm. This involves attaching a lock or tag to an energy isolating device so that only the employee doing the maintenance work can unlock (and re-power) the equipment.

However, even though today’s manufacturing equipment is often controlled electronically and by computer, OSHA’s current rules specifically prohibit using electronic push buttons, selector switches, and other “control circuit type devices” to de-energize equipment for maintenance or servicing. Your control room may be 21st century, but your lockout program has had to stay vintage 1980s.

In the new RFI, OSHA admits that “technological advances since the standard was issued in 1989 suggest that, at least in some circumstances, control circuit type devices may be at least as safe as [traditional Energy Isolating Devices (EIDs)].” OSHA says that it is reconsidering these rules and seeks information from stakeholders about how and when “control circuit type devices could safely be used for the control of hazardous energy.”

OSHA explains in its RFI that it already granted one company a permanent variance to to use a “trapped key” system after OSHA determined that only the employee performing maintenance could restart the system, employees could verify de-energization, they could identify authorized employees before restarting, and the system would alert operators to mechanical or electrical faults, would protect against attempts to bypass it, and would revert to a fail-safe mode if necessary.

OSHA needs to know what you know

Looking more broadly, OSHA asks stakeholders to answer dozens of questions to provide it with information about how they would like to use control circuits for LOTO and why such techniques are safe. Among other details, OSHA asks companies to share:

  • Types of circuitry and control procedures available
  • Limitations on their use
  • Conditions under which control circuit devices can be used safely
  • Feedback on making changes to the LOTO standard to address the new risks

Can’t we [co-bots and people] just get along?

OSHA also notes that robotics in factories has changed significantly. Whereas a “traditional robot model involves a large device that welds metal pieces or moves panels or assemblies” in a fixed, locked location, “newer robots are more mobile” and may “roam freely in a specified area, even if that area is separate from employees. Collaborative robots go a step further by working with human workers.”

OSHA wants to know whether it should update the lockout/tagout rule specifically to address robotics issues. It asks a number of questions, including:

  • What new risks does increased interaction with robots create?
  • In what ways do the robots reduce risks or add benefits to worker safety?
  • What LOTO standard changes would address these risks?
  • Does OSHA need to address software, as well as hardware, safety?

Finally, OSHA asks for the economic aspects of all of these potential changes to lockout/tagout rules. It asks in detail for analysis of the economic costs and benefits for making changes to the regulations – from the costs of purchasing equipment and retraining workers to the benefits of fewer injuries and more productivity.

How can you make a difference in these changing rules?

Publishing an RFI is the first stage in rulemaking. The information and feedback OSHA gathers from stakeholders – companies, workers, trade associations, and unions – will significantly impact whether it moves ahead with rulemaking and what exactly it proposes to change in the lockout/tagout rules.

If your operations would benefit from an updated LOTO standard, it’s important that OSHA hear from you. Opinions are great, but what OSHA really needs is evidence. It needs to base its decisions on data, information, and real-world experiences – about the applications, safety, costs, and benefits of changing lockout/tagout.  While companies with a very limited comment or data point may wish to submit comments directly via the online docket, the most compelling and impactful comments take time and effort: to gather information, analyze data, sometimes engage experts, and present clear guidance to OSHA on how it should proceed.

Our team at Husch Blackwell has extensive experience turning our clients’ ideas, on-the-ground experience, and goals into thoughtful, evidence-based rulemaking comments. Whether you’d like to submit comments in your own company’s name, work with an informal coalition of other companies, or have your state or national trade association get involved, we can help.

Comments are due by August 18, 2019, so it’s time to get started. Please contact Avi Meyerstein if you would like more information about preparing and submitting comments for your company or association.

Tracey Oakes O’Brien was a contributing author of this content.