Are ANSI Standards Really Voluntary? through a Variety of Avenues, These Consensus Standards Can Wind Up Having the Force of Law. Here's Why

Article excerpt

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has a difficult task: how can it promulgate consensus standards, written entirely by volunteers in subcommittees and with no enforcement authority? In the case of ANSI's safety-related standards, how does this organization still warrant the attention of machine builders, OSHA, users and labor? In short, how does ANSI obtain respect and avoid being the Rodney Danger-field of safety standards? The answer revolves around whether ANSI standards are really voluntary, or something much more.

One area of confusion for safety professionals, design engineers, machine builders and users involved with the implementation of the ANSI documents revolves around the enforceability of these consensus standards. After all, these are just voluntary standards, right? Well, the real answer is yes--and no. Technically, ANSI standards are considered voluntary consensus standards and are not written as laws or regulations. In fact, the subcommittees that create the standards have no enforcement authority, much to the relief, I am sure, of the subcommittee members! Yet the standards themselves are widely recognized in industry as an excellent source of reference material, often with an easier-to-understand format than that of OSHA.

OSHA Adoption

The voluntary status of the standards can change significantly when OSHA adopts ANSI standards by reference. This is the case, for example, with OSHA 1910.215, Abrasive Wheel Machinery. The section, 1910.215(b)(12), requires abrasive wheel machinery guards to conform to the ANSI B7.1-1970 standard on abrasive wheels. By specifically incorporating the B7.1 standard in its regulations, OSHA has converted a voluntary standard into a federal requirement. Various state safety agencies may follow the same process as OSHA, and incorporate ANSI standard references in their respective state regulations, especially when taking the lead from OSHA. For example, California, Oregon and South Carolina all have similar rulings on the abrasive wheel machinery.

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What happens when the ANSI standard incorporated by OSHA is later revised? No problem, as OSHA can show a surprising ability to react to changes. In the case of the B7.1 standard, it was updated three times, in 1978, 1988 and 2000, and OSHA has issued directives to conform to the newer versions. Since OSHA is built for power and not for speed, agility is not one of its usual attributes. It may take a year or more for OSHA to officially recognize a newer standard. In the interim, compliance to either version of the standard would likely be acceptable, although one should verify this with the agency for their particular situation.

Let's consider another example to illustrate how the ANSI standards and OSHA regulations can interact. Assume that an OSHA compliance officer cites a company under 1910.212(a)(3)(ii), for failure to safeguard a machine at the point of operation. One way the company can abate the citation is to demonstrate the machine is guarded according to the appropriate B11 standard. In fact, the text in 1910.212(a)(3)(ii) includes, "The guarding device shall be in conformity with any appropriate standards ..." Thus, here is a case where the voluntary B11 standard is used to correct a hazardous situation, and reduce a citation issued under the mandatory OSHA regulations. …