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How ‘Voluntary’ Safety Standards Impact OSHA Compliance

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Compliance-lca, Essential, Lab Industry Advisor, Lab Safety-lca

Lab leaders need to be aware that in some cases, following additional standards such as ANSI may not be voluntary at all.

In addition to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, lab safety managers may need to address voluntary standards published by nongovernment organizations like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In some cases, following these additional standards may not be voluntary at all.

“The term ‘voluntary standards’ is really a misnomer because failing to comply with them may put you at risk of liability,” notes Mark D. Hansen, CSP, PE, CPEA, CPE, who’s been managing occupational safety and health programs at different companies for nearly four decades.

What’s the difference between an OSHA requirement and ANSI standard? When do voluntary standards become mandatory? Here’s a briefing to help answer these and other key questions:

What are ANSI standards?

ANSI standards are technical documents that provide rules, guidelines, or characteristics for a product or process. Many standards not only look like OSHA laws but also cover the same issues addressed. “To the uninitiated, it can be confusing to have these different standards side by side,” Hansen explains.1

Example: ANSI Z244.1-2016, The Control Of Hazardous Energy Lockout, Tagout And Alternative Methods, sets out procedures and measures for controlling the risk that machines will energize while they’re being serviced; OSHA Standard 1910.147, the control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), does the exact same thing.2,3

But there are important differences. OSHA laws typically set out a general framework for guarding against a hazard or carrying out a hazardous operation. While typically consistent with the OSHA standard, ANSI standards go into much greater depth and furnish the technical, nuts-and-bolts details that OSHA leaves out. ANSI standards also typically call for more extensive measures than what the OSHA standard requires.

Thus, for example, OSHA regulations (Section 1910.132(d)(1)) require employers “to assess the workplace to determine if hazards are present, or are likely to be present, which necessitate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).” Arc flash from electrical equipment installation would be one such hazard, and fire-proof clothing would be among the PPE required to guard against it.4 Rather than simply implying this, Article 130.5 of NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, requires a specific arc flash risk assessment for purposes of determining not only necessary PPE but also work practices and the precise arc flash boundary where special safety precautions are mandatory.5

Feedback from lab safety professionals

In an unofficial poll by G2 Intelligence, lab professionals responsible for safety in their facilities were asked about their greatest challenges in complying with both OSHA, as well as voluntary standards such as ANSI. One respondent listed the high cost of accessing ANSI standards as a challenge, while another listed “trying to achieve compliance when it’s only a recommendation” as their main issue. As for tips on meeting multiple standards, respondents stated that focusing on OSHA first and other standards such as ANSI second is how they approach things. “If other standards are more conservative [than OSHA], aim for that as best practice,” one respondent added.

When voluntary standards become mandatory: incorporation by reference

OSHA standards carry the force of law and must be followed. ANSI standards are voluntary. They’re created by committees of industry representatives, technical experts, and policymakers on the basis of consensus and industry best practices. These committees don’t have the authority to make law; all they can do is issue recommendations.

However, lawmakers may decide to make voluntary standards mandatory by using a process called incorporation by reference, which occurs when an OSHA standard cites a particular ANSI (or other) standard and makes following it an obligation under that OSHA standard, either in whole or in part. In effect, the ANSI standard becomes part of the OSHA standard.

“Safety directors need to recognize that many federal and state OSHA standards incorporate standards from ANSI and other nongovernmental organizations by reference,” explains Hansen.

Example: The OSHA standard for Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Chemicals in Laboratories (Section 1910.1450(i)) states that if respiratory protective equipment is required, labs must furnish it to employees and ensure the equipment meets the Respiratory Protection Standard (Section 1910.134). Among other things, the standard (Section 1910.134(i)(1)(ii)) specifies that when the required equipment is an atmosphere-supplying respirator, the compressed breathing air it uses must meet “at least the requirements for Grade D breathing air described in ANSI/Compressed Gas Association Commodity Specification for Air, G-7.1-1989.”6,7

Bottom Line: If compressed breathing air in the atmosphere-supplying respirators you provide employees doesn’t meet the ANSI standard, OSHA can cite your lab for violating the Respiratory Protection Standard.

Noncompliance with voluntary standards may show lack of reasonableness

OSHA inspectors can also cite labs for failing to follow ANSI standards that aren’t incorporated by reference into an OSHA standard. Explanation: OSHA laws often establish general safety standards employers must meet without explaining how, notes Hansen. Rather than specifying compliance methods, they require employers to make reasonable decisions based on an assessment of the risk, how likely it is to occur, how harmful it would be if it did occur, the costs of managing the hazard, etc.

OSHA and the courts have standards on how they expect employers to use this discretion. That includes considering ANSI, industry, and other non-legislative standards adopted by people within the industry who understand the hazards and the best ways to manage them.

Example: Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act, aka, the General Duty Clause, requires employers to furnish a workplace that’s “free from recognized hazards” without explaining what “recognized hazards” are or what employers must do to control them. Courts and OSHA tribunals have consistently ruled that existence of an ANSI standard is evidence that a hazard is “recognized” within the meaning of section 5(a)(1).8 (See, for example, Secretary v. Asplundh Tree Expert, LLC, OSHRC Docket No. 21-0497, where the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld a General Duty Clause citation against a tree trimming firm for not providing a safe method of removing a dead cottonwood tree in cold weather in accordance with ANSI Z-133 for arboriculture.)9

4 action steps for addressing ANSI standards

Here are four steps lab leaders can take to decide which ANSI or other voluntary standards to comply with:

1. Identify which ANSI standards OSHA incorporates by reference and be sure to comply with all of them.

2. Keep track of important new standards and changes from the major organizations that affect the lab industry.

3. If your health and safety committee, an OSHA official, consultant, or lab industry authority recommends implementing a voluntary ANSI standard, take the recommendation seriously and either accept it or give a good reason for rejecting it.

4. Keep records documenting your consideration of the recommendation to adopt the ANSI standard and why you decided for or against it.

Judging whether ANSI standards not incorporated by reference are mandatory

Although they’re voluntary, ANSI standards not incorporated by reference represent a credible and accepted standard of safety that OSHA inspectors and courts will use to judge whether you did enough to comply with OSHA requirements. But that doesn’t mean they’re always mandatory. Understanding why this is the case is critical to understanding the compliance significance of ANSI standards.

Those who wrote the OSHA laws had to consider both workers’ safety and employers’ costs. Although the authors of ANSI standards also consider costs, their principal motivation is safety. So, in many cases, the committees that adopt the standards are willing to impose more rigorous and expensive standards. “ANSI standards often represent a gold standard for safety,” Hansen says.

The employer’s obligation is to provide not necessarily the highest degree of safety possible, but the highest degree of safety it can reasonably afford given its resources, the risks involved, and other factors. You don’t have to use the most expensive method if a cheaper option is almost as safe. But if an accident that the more expensive method would have prevented occurs, you must be prepared to defend your decision.


    1. https://webstore.ansi.org/industry/safety-standards?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQiAr8eqBhD3ARIsAIe-buNfBFQuf1adQVpIjZDCsmq4s-XZ7rXi45dNvQD741FRc58Ih72WvCAaAqkKEALw_wcB

    1. https://webstore.ansi.org/standards/asse/ansiasspz2442016r2020?source=blog&_gl=1*pcbqho*_gcl_au*MTAwODM1MTc3Ni4xNjk5NDczMjAx

    1. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.147

    1. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-29/subtitle-B/chapter-XVII/part-1910/subpart-I/section-1910.132

    1. https://safety.ep.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/707/2017/03/36.-2015-NFPA-70E-Copy.pdf

    1. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1450

    1. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.134

    1. https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/section5-duties

    1. https://www.oshrc.gov/assets/1/18/21-0497_Asplundh_Tree_Expert_LLC_Final_Decision_(redacted).pdf?12496

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