OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout Standard at 29 C.F.R. 1910.147 regulates the control of exposure to unexpected energization during service and maintenance on machines or equipment. On May 18, 2019, OSHA issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking “information regarding two areas where modernizing the Lockout/Tagout standard might better promote worker safety without additional burdens to employers: control circuit type devices and robotics.”
Control Circuit Type Devices
OSHA’s Lockout/Tagout standard currently requires that all sources of energy, including energy stored in the machine itself, be controlled during servicing and maintenance of machines and equipment using an energy-isolating device (EID). But control circuit type devices are specifically excluded from OSHA’s definition of an EID. Because of technological advances since the standard was issued in 1989, OSHA has recognized that control circuit type devices may be at least as safe as EIDs. OSHA requests information, data, and comments that would assist the agency in determining under what conditions control circuit type devices could safely be used for the control of hazardous energy.
When OSHA adopted the Lockout/Tagout standard in 1989, the agency could not have contemplated the recent and rapid advancement in robotic systems. These systems can now move independently and adapt to new circumstances and information in a workplace – – machines that “think” while they work.
Enforcement of the standard when applied to robotics can have serious consequences. OSHA can penalize “Serious” violations up to $13,260 per infraction. An even more significant threat lies not in monetary penalties, but in abatement requirements. If the agency requires a manufacturer to discontinue the use of its robotic systems, such a move could debilitate operations.
Strict adherence to the standard could introduce logistical problems. Some newer systems have such precise calibrations that deenergizing them could introduce inaccuracies that would render the system ineffective. In other cases, deenergized systems incur costly slowdowns or shutdowns, making operations prohibitively expensive, and possibly less safe. To deal with this, many robotic systems have been designed to undergo maintenance without deenergizing them in a safe manner, a potential violation of the standard.
Increasingly, manufacturers and other employers have asked OSHA to embrace safe robotic systems, often through requests for variances from the standard. OSHA may grant a variance to an employer if it can demonstrate that the infeasibility of deenergization and the safety features that make maintenance of an energized system as safe as or even safer than adherence to the standard.
In response to these developments, OSHA is requesting comment from stakeholders on a potential update to the standard to accommodate the use of the evolving technology of robotics, as well as the use of control-circuit type devices to isolate energy.
Interested stakeholders may submit comments until August 18, 2019 at https://www.regulations.gov.