Keeping the National Electrical Safety Code Relevant for All Utility Workers
by Trevor Bowmer and Larry Slavin
In the early years of utility infrastructure rollout in the US, workers had to deal with masses of lines with multiple cross arms on poles spanning highways and byways. During the 100-year history of the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC), the power and communications industries and regulators have leveraged the code in helping bring order to the chaos, guiding safe design and activity around such lines.
The NESC covers a wide range of applications including power plants (electric supply stations) and tall, high-voltage transmission towers, as well as the more ubiquitous joint-use poles for local distribution of communication and power services. Opportunities for conflicts among facilities and work practices can easily arise for workers on these joint-use poles-conflicts that can often be alleviated through application of the NESC, protecting the safety of all utility workers and the public.
Maintaining order for the sake of worker and public safety has grown steadily more important in the decades since 1984 deregulation and the ensuing growth in diversity of stakeholders and technologies on the poles and in the underground systems and buried areas in easements and rights of way. Circumstances are more complex now with multiple joint-users and attachments on these structures, resulting from the ongoing growth of cable television, the widespread deployment of fiber-optic technology, and the continuing boom in wireless/cellular services witnessed in the past three decades. The intensifying rollout of the smart grid and its two-way flow of power and data is another trend. The line between what is power infrastructure and what is communications infrastructure was fairly clear until recent years; the smart grid, however, is gradually blurring that line.
The NESC provides the basic rules on safety across the different equipment types and varying skills of the utility workers that must share the poles and underground space. Keeping the code relevant and up to date in the face of innovation in power and communications technologies, as well as the increasing service demands, is a never-ending task-and never a more crucial one with regard to the safety of utility field technicians and contractors, as well as the public.
The Code's First Century
The 100-year anniversary of the NESC's creation was marked in August 2014. The 1914 introduction of the code ushered consistency and safety factors into the design, construction and use of US electricity and communications infrastructures.
A century later, the NESC has emerged as one of the most widely adopted safety codes. Through legislative, regulatory or voluntary action, almost all of the individual states within the US leverage the NESC in whole or part, and some 100 countries around the globe use the code in some manner.
The NESC specifies best practices for safe deployment, and use and maintenance of electric supply and communication systems such as telephone, cable TV and railroad signal systems, as well as their associated equipment, for public and private utilities. The code applies from the generation or delivery point from another entity all the way to the customer service point, at which power or communications systems are transferred to a premises wiring system.
Over the past three decades, we have seen a much greater diversity of utility workers-those of wireless companies, competing telephone companies, power companies, etc.-on the poles and in the underground trenches to which the NESC applies, as more antennas, traffic signals and communications infrastructure have been deployed to address the needs and demands presented by population growth, mobile communications and Internet proliferation. In fact, power and communications workers can often find themselves working in the vicinity of each other on adjacent, or even on the same, joint-usage structures.
Standardized rules regarding how the workers from different disciplines can work safely together are essential. The utility workers could possibly work out issues that arise on a case-by-case basis, but it's safer and more efficient to cooperate within the parameters of the NESC's basic rules when working near one another. In addition, having common rules across regions helps power and communications workers know more precisely what to expect when they are working in unfamiliar territory, such as in disaster-response scenarios.
Because language, engineering controls and other aspects sometimes vary among the different types of utility workers sharing joint structures, it is critical that expertise from all involved parties have a voice in helping ensure the NESC remains practical, relevant and up to date.
Toward the 2017 Edition
Since 1914, the NESC has been steadily refined to help ensure protection for the public, utility workers, equipment and property.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has served as secretariat of the code since 1972. The standards and collaborative solutions arm of IEEE, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA), facilitates a structured, five-year process through which the code is revised through open collaboration among the professionals and industries it serves.
September 2014 begins an eight-month period of open commentary on the "preprint" of proposed changes for the 2017 edition of the NESC, which is scheduled for publication on August 1, 2016. From now until May 1, 2015, interested parties can review, affirm or suggest additional changes to the code's change proposals.
This public commentary period is the current phase in a proven, five-year process of refinement for the NESC that commences with publication of each new edition of the code. In particular:
• Change proposals can be prepared and submitted electronically by any interested person, organization, NESC subcommittee or member of the NESC Committee or its subcommittees.
• Each change proposal is considered by an NESC subcommittee, which can then endorse the proposal, propose revisions or additions, refer the proposal to technical working groups for more detailed evaluation, seek coordination with other subcommittees and/or recommend that the change proposal be rejected.
• The preprint of the proposed changes is prepared and made publicly available at the IEEE Standards Store, at standards.ieee.org/store.
• After a period of open commentary by the public, the proposed revisions to the code and comments are considered by the relevant NESC subcommittees.
• A draft of the revised NESC is prepared based on the subcommittee reports and submitted for approval by the NESC Main Committee. It also undergoes concurrent public review by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and, finally, approval by ANSI's Board of Standards Review.
For 100 years, companies and workers have relied on the NESC to help ensure the safety and efficiency of electric supply, communication lines and related equipment. One of the oldest and most ubiquitous safety codes, the NESC has been in continuous use since August 1914.
The code continuously evolves to stay current with new technologies and developments affecting lines supported on the poles, as well as those placed in the trenches, that power and communications workers share. To ensure the NESC's ongoing contribution to the safety of those workers and the public alike, a diversity of inputs, expertise and lessons learned from the real-world field is needed during the revision process. The period of open commentary that continues until May 2015 is an opportune time for all voices to be heard.
About the authors: As organizational representatives of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), Larry Slavin and Trevor Bowmer provide the communications-industry perspective on the Main Committee and five of the technical subcommittees of the NESC.