If you’re like most people with a safety role, you have been faced with the question, “where did you find that? OSHA doesn’t say it in their standard!”, followed by hours of research to try and figure out where a regulation comes from. That is often where they refer to consensus standards. So, let’s take a look at how consensus standards, regulations, and other rules come into play. We’re going to keep this at an introductory level, so won’t get too technical or detailed.

Laws are rules that have been passed by a legislative body and are enforceable.

Regulations are rules that are passed by a governmental body that are also enforceable, but don’t go through the voting process.

Consensus standards are recommendations or operating practices that are created by a group of experts that do not, by themselves, have the ability to be enforced, unless adopted by a regulatory body.

As an example, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 was the law that Congress passed that created OSHA. That is a law and was voted on. Each time OSHA adopts or changes a rule that pertains to industry, it is not voted on by Congress or citizens, but is still enforceable, and that is a regulation. So, if it pertains to general industry, it will fall under 29 Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) 1910. OSHA frequently refers to consensus standards but doesn’t quote the exact requirements. For example, 29 CFR 1910.37 says very little about emergency exit signs, but they enforce far more. If you look in 29 CFR 1910.6(t)(25), is says “NFPA 101-2009, Life Safety Code, 2009 edition, IBR approved for §§1910.34, 1910.35, 1910.36, and 1910.37.” That tells us that OSHA put the weight of the law behind this consensus standard and enforces it. So even though 1910.37 doesn’t specifically say that you must test your emergency lights, reading NFPA 101 Chapter 7.9.3 gives the requirement to be tested monthly for 30-seconds and annually for 90-minutes, among other things.

To elaborate on what we just mentioned, in general industry, OSHA will list the consensus standards that they enforce under 29 CFR 1910.6, and tell you which version of the standard they adopt and which OSHA standards it shall apply to.

What are some common consensus standards that OSHA adopts?

  • ANSI is the American National Standard Institute and they have many standards that apply to many topics, such as building construction, machine guarding, fall protection, and more. One example is ANSI Z87 sets the standards for producing safety eyewear. If you look at safety glasses, they will typically have Z87 inside the frames, and OSHA references this standard several times for general industry in 1910.6.
  • NFPA is the National Fire Protection Agency, and they have numerous standards on everything from building code to sprinkler systems to handling chemicals.
  • ASME is the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and their standards primarily refer to boilers and pressure vessels.
  • API is the American Petroleum Institute and their standards are primarily referred to for low pressure storage vessels.

There are several more that are referenced, and they add a lot more complexity to all the OSHA regulations you thought you were enforcing. Some of the organizations require you to purchase their literature if you want to read it so you know how to abide by it. Others, like NFPA, allow you free access if you create an account (for the NFPA, you can create a free account at NFPA.org, and you will be able to open and read it on your computer, but not print it). Other standards, you may not have to read their materials, just make sure your equipment is compliant. For example, if your safety glasses have the stamp Z87 on them, I don’t necessarily need to know how they were manufactured, I just know they meet those requirements, whereas if I manufactured or sold safety glasses, I’d definitely want to know the standard. Many of the standards will be revised every few years to keep up with technology and research, but OSHA might not enforce the newest revision, so you want to pay attention to which revision OSHA applies.

Not only does OSHA reference and enforce specific consensus standards, but other regulatory bodies do, as well. Your state and municipality may adopt them for building codes and other requirements. A common example is the NFPA diamond (the diamond shaped signage with he blue, red, yellow, and white corners), which is not required by OSHA, but many municipalities adopt NFPA 704’s requirement to post it on buildings or tanks that contain hazardous materials so fire departments and other emergency responders recognize hazardous properties from a distance.

How else do consensus standards affect you? Even if they haven’t been adopted by regulations, they can affect you several ways. First, they offer recommendations and practices that experts in an industry put forward. So, while OSHA or other regulatory bodies may not require you to follow them, if you do not follow them, you might end up getting sued in case of an accident because you were not following a best practice. Second, you may be a part of a licensed profession that requires you to meet standards. As an example, I’m a firefighter and certified by my state’s licensing body to be an instructor for several topics related to firefighting. If I’m teaching under that licensure, I need to ensure I follow the NFPA standards that relate to those topics. Third, your insurance provider may refer to those standards. If you have a facility that is insured, your insurance company likely requires it to be inspected by their company or another inspection company, and they often refer to many other standards that are not required under regulations, depending on the specific hazards of your facility. By knowing where to find the specific standards, you are giving yourself the ability to have an educated discussion with those individuals to defend your practices or determine how to meet the standards in a way that may be less expensive or intrusive than they would initially advise.

To further add some confusion (and hopefully clarification), there are government bodies, like NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), that focus on research. If you look at a Safety Data Sheet (SDS), you will frequently find different exposure limits set by OSHA, NIOSH, and several other bodies, including foreign regulatory bodies if that chemical is distributed in other countries. Typically, that company that sells the chemical doesn’t do the research for how much you can be exposed to, as that would be prohibitively expensive. NIOSH is the research body in the U.S. that does much of this testing to determine safe exposure levels and the effectiveness of personal protective equipment (PPE). Rather than a company taking on the liability of recommending how much you can safely be exposed to, they simply quote the OSHA, NIOSH, and other agencies recommendation. NIOSH is not required to be followed but is a good recommendation to follow. OSHA, on the other hand, if they have a permissible exposure limit (PEL) listed in 1910.1000 or similar, must be followed, as it’s a regulation. That’s why when you read an SDS, it will have several different variations of allowed exposure limits. Determine which levels are required by regulations, which are advisory, and then make your company’s policies based on that information.

Finally, OSHA’s regulations may leave questions on how to enforce or interpret their standards, so they will write letters of interpretation. You can find the lists of their letters for general industry here: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/standardnumber/1910 and search by date or topic. These letters often make it easier to determine how you must meet the regulations. OSHA will also have emphasis programs that are put out to help their inspectors and industry determine where they should put focus based on current trends and hazards in industry. Those can be found here: https://www.osha.gov/enforcement/directives/nep.

Hopefully that makes it easier for you to make sure you company is following the regulations and helping you find the necessary information! If you need more information, feel free to reach out to Provenio Consulting or email me at brad@provenioconsulting.com.