Putting Safety First: A Moral Imperative

Putting Safety First: A Moral Imperative

This piece was originally published in the May 2017 issue of electroindustry.

Jonathan Stewart, Manager, Government Relations, NEMA
Mark Kohorst, Senior Manager, Environment, Health & Safety, NEMA

The safe and effective use of electrical and medical imaging products touches the life of every American in a significant way every day. NEMA’s guiding principles are based on this premise; they encompass standards development, counterfeiting, energy efficiency, and transparency.

May, as National Electrical Safety Month, is a good time to remember that safety is not a PR campaign or a business strategy, although its principles certainly underpin both. It is a moral imperative—one that begins with product design and continues through installation and decommissioning to protect the consumer and the environment. NEMA does not simply follow this moral compass; we set it, inasmuch as it applies to products within the scope of our membership.

Through the promotion of devices such as carbon monoxide and smoke detectors and strategies for encouraging the adoption of life safety codes, NEMA takes a three-pronged approach to setting our compass: design, installation and use, and decommissioning.

Design

NEMA’s most direct and longest-running safety-related practice is the maintenance and publication of more than 500 product standards for electrical equipment. They ensure that installers, users, and occupants of buildings where such equipment is installed are safe from unnecessary electrical risk. While each of these standards begins as a voluntary industry standard, many are often incorporated into installation and building codes, which are then adopted into law through state building codes.

Government policies aimed at safeguarding the environment and public health can profoundly affect how some electrical products are designed, marketed, and managed at the end of their usefulness. Certain rules and regulations apply broadly across the NEMA membership and thereby create the need for a forum that allows companies all along the generation, transmission, distribution, and end-use spectrum to share information and collaborate on response strategies. The environmentally conscious design (ECD) program was conceived for this purpose.

For instance, the ECD forum has been a useful conduit for members to analyze the impact of a variety of state regulations, such as California’s “right-to-know” program (Proposition 65). International companies use the forum to stay abreast of design restrictions stemming from the European Union’s Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) Directive. Although enacted with the aim of reducing exposure to hazardous materials and protecting the environment, these rules are not immune to unintended consequences. It is therefore important for NEMA —and other industries—to be engaged in these kinds of environmental regulatory processes and advise against measures that might jeopardize the safety of electrical products.

Installation and Use

Nowhere is NEMA’s role in shaping policy more apparent than through its work to promote state adoption of the National Electrical Code® (NEC), which sets the minimum standards for the proper installation of electrical systems and equipment to protect people and property from hazards that may arise from the use of electricity.

NEMA’s code adoption initiative began as a strategic initiative in 2010 and has been renewed and funded annually by NEMA’s Board of Governors; it is now a core advocacy function. NEMA employs four full-time field representatives and one government relations manager who work almost exclusively to ensure that state building code councils remain on the three-year cycle.

Within the framework of the code adoption process, NEMA plays another important role, that of educator. Each state maintains a prerogative to amend the edition of the NEC that it adopts. While not opposed to this autonomy, NEMA engages throughout this process to ensure these amendments do not put building occupants at risk by removing fundamental safety requirements. This often entails public and stakeholder education on the function of electrical safety devices.

In addition, NEMA is a founding member of Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), whose sole mission is to promote the safe use of electrical products. ESFI accomplishes its mission through education, awareness, and advocacy campaigns.

For example, in 2014, ESFI created an awareness program for the safety benefits of tamper-resistant receptacles (TRRs). Although these devices had been required by the NEC since 2008, they were misunderstood. By the end of 2016, ESFI held a dominate position on all TRR-related materials. Media monitoring reports an improved public perception and likely reception to use.

Individual NEMA sections also work directly to shape policy for the safe use of their products. The Dry Battery Section, for example, is a leading voice in the national policy discussion on the ingestion risk for button (coin) cell batteries. NEMA also funds the National Capitol Poison Center to collect and analyze data on button cell ingestions. Thanks to this data, the industry has approximate but reliable statistics on key risk factors related to victims, battery chemistries, and morbidity. Battery manufacturers use this data to inform internal product and marketing decisions, as well as external policy discussions surrounding regulations and standards development.

Decommissioning

The way certain electrical products are managed and disposed of at the end of their useful life may also have safety implications. Some energy-efficient lighting products, for example, contain small amounts of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that is strictly regulated in the United States and most foreign markets. Recycling mercury lamps is the appropriate management option to ensure against mercury releases to the environment and is, in fact, required by U.S. law for commercial, industrial, and institutional facilities that generate large quantities of waste lamps.

Lamp manufacturers have long advocated that all mercury-added lamps be recycled. Thus, they label their products and packaging to note the presence of mercury and direct consumers to websites that provide recycling information.

Similarly, mercury-switch thermostats, which are largely legacy products that are no longer manufactured or sold, also require special handling procedures and should not be discarded as waste. NEMA members addressed this problem proactively in 1998 by creating the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC), an industry-funded, non-profit stewardship organization that collects and recycles mercury-switch thermostats nationwide. Since its inception, the TRC has prevented more than 10 tons of mercury from entering the nation’s solid waste stream.

Our Vision

NEMA has not been and never will be alone in these efforts. Our member company representatives work tirelessly to generate and disseminate safety information through NEMA. We continue to be leaders in building and joining coalitions of like-minded trade groups and safety organizations, capitalizing on their strengths and relationships, to make sure that policymakers hear our collective voice.

We continue to put safety first.

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