Keep It Clear
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2012
A proposed requirement for the 2014 edition of the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) addresses the ongoing need to maintain clear working space around electrical equipment that is likely to be worked on while energized. Energized tasks on electrical equipment are inherently dangerous, and the new requirement is based on the need to give qualified workers the necessary space so that their safe access to the energized parts is not compromised or impeded. An additional benefit of clear working space is that it provides the required ready access to overcurrent protective devices.
The code currently requires clear access to energized electrical equipment for examination, adjustment, servicing, or maintenance, with adequate room to move freely and safely while performing energized tasks. Even though the energized tasks permitted by NFPA 70E®, Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, and OSHA’s General Industry Standard (29 CFR, Part 1910, Subpart S) are limited, they still require sufficient working space, which is an essential piece of the safe work equation.
The proposed requirement would more clearly define the space that must remain clear. Code-Making Panel 1, through its action on Proposal 1-110, has accepted a recommendation that creates a new requirement for marking the height, width, and depth of the working space for all equipment covered by the requirements of Sections 110.26(A) and 110.32. The marking is to be either on the equipment or immediately adjacent to it.
Working space does not have a direct effect on the operation of the electrical system, though there may be instances with heat-producing equipment where the working space also provides necessary clearances for proper heat dissipation and ventilation. Therefore, its value is often only recognized by those in the electrical industry. To building owners, the space around this equipment can represent valuable square footage that could be used to generate additional revenue, and for building occupants, that “extra” space practically begs for something to be stored in it.
Unless a building’s owner or management is actively involved in the building’s day-to-day operations after the occupancy permit has been granted, the requirement in Sections 110.26(B) and 110.34(A) calling for the working space to be clear and not used for storage can be easily overlooked. Any electrician who performs service work has plenty of stories about maneuvering around stored items or having to remove obstacles in order to perform necessary energized tasks, such as voltage testing or other diagnostic work.
Despite being responsible for code compliance, many building owners and managers are unaware of the NEC working space requirements. In addition, building, fire, and electrical code enforcement officials who inspect buildings during construction do not typically perform ongoing inspections. Some occupancy types, such as places of assembly, education, and heath care, are subject to periodic inspections for systems and occupancy purposes, and it is this kind of ongoing inspection program that is usually necessary to enforce NEC working space requirements.
In workplaces, that responsibility can fall to the building owner, property manager, or other legally responsible party. That is because 29 CFR, Part 1910, contains the clear working space requirements contained in Sections 110.26(A) and 110.32 of the NEC.
Jeffrey Sargent is a regional electrical code specialist for NFPA.