The National Electrical Code: Myths & Facts
Written by Steve Hudgik
With various standards informing electrical safety best practices in the workplace, is the National Electrical Code still relevant? Read on to find out.
Myth: The National Electrical Code (NEC) has been officially adopted as the federal electrical safety standard in the United States.
Fact: The National Electrical Code is not a federal standard. Technically, only those standards issued by OSHA are enforceable under federal law - and the National Electrical Code is issued not by OSHA, but the NFPA.
If standards issued by the NFPA are not federal standards, then what are they? According to OSHA, standards developed by nationally recognized standards organizations such as NFPA, ASTM or ANSI are considered "national consensus standards". Though these standards may inform and guide OSHA regulations, they are technically not considered the law. That's why OSHA posters often feature the slogan "It's the Law", whereas materials produced by other standards organizations do not.
Does this mean we can afford to ignore regulations suggested by the NFPA, such as the National Electrical Code? Absolutely not. OSHA maintains the right to cite consensus standards produced by NFPA in official citations. Additionally, under OSHA's catch-all General Duty Clause, "each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." Do "recognized hazards" include those specifically addressed by the National Electrical Code? You bet.
Although the language of the National Electrical Code may not appear verbatim in OSHA's federally enforceable bylaws, its recommendations still impact how OSHA will address electrical safety issues.
Myth: The NFPA and OSHA are competing organizations
Fact: Standards produced by the NFPA and OSHA generally do not conflict, and commonly work to support each other in their respective efforts to improve workplace safety.
In fact, the types of issues addressed by the two organizations differs slightly and therefore, so does the focus of the standards they produce. OSHA, for example, is responsible primarily for dictating standards that address safety issues impacting the employee, the employer, and the workplace. If an electrical safety issue occurs at any stage not directly related to the workplace, it falls under the purview of a different regulatory agency. A design flaw in a toy that poses an electrical hazard, for example, might be addressed by an organization such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Poor electrical safety practices at the facility that manufactures that toy, on the other hand, would be addressed by OSHA.
The NFPA may produce standards that address far broader issues than those limited to the workplace. The National Electrical Code is an example of this type of standard. It addresses not only electrical safety best practices that relate to the workers utilizing electrical equipment, but also to the design, installation and inspection of that equipment. It provides a broad, conclusive look at electrical safety from a variety of professional perspectives.
If OSHA regularly relies on the language of NFPA-produced standards, why doesn't OSHA just incorporate those standards into their own? In a word: bureaucracy. The process of modifying a federal standard is involved and lengthy. In many cases, it's faster and more efficient to refer to NFPA standards in a less formal way. OSHA and the NFPA clearly cooperate rather than compete on issues of electrical safety.
Myth: The recently updated NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace nullifies and replaces the National Electrical Code.
Fact: NFPA 70E works to specify certain electrical safety best practices; it supports and expounds upon the general recommendations outlined in the National Electrical Code, but does not necessarily replace it altogether.
NFPA 70E even contains some of the exact language of the National Electrical Code. So what's the difference between the two standards? NFPA 70E was created to support OSHA's efforts to enforce good electrical safety practices in the workplace. It outlines specific actions an employer can take to prove that a reasonable effort was made to provide a safe workplace in environments that pose potential electrical hazards. The National Electrical Code, on the other hand, puts forth a much more general overview of electrical safety that is not so much concerned with the logistics of OSHA inspections or the efforts of employers. Its general principles, however, provide the basis for many recommendations put forth in NFPA 70E.
In this way, the National Electrical Code and NFPA 70E are complementary standards in the field of electrical safety and the National Electrical Code remains relevant.