Machine Safety: If only OSHA regulations are law, what are ANSI consensus standards?

OSHA regulations are enforced and considered as U.S. legal requirements for machine safety. Among thousands of consensus standards, it is not always clear which are significant for machine safety and could be an obligation for compliance.


As a machine safety leader, you might be seeking guidance about how to incorporate various ANSI standards into a compliance strategy. OSHA regulations are enforced and considered as legal requirements for machine safety. However, there are thousands of consensus standards, and it’s not always clear which ones are significant for machine safety and could be an obligation for compliance.

OSHAIf you’re confused, you’re not alone!

In the “Cliff Notes” version of history, OSHA was created by an act of Congress in the early 1970s and had no regulations. OSHA began to create regulations for machine safety from existing consensus standards like ANSI. OSHA needed regulations to be applicable to machinery in various applications in every U.S. state. To accomplish this goal they had to remove a lot of the technical “nuts and bolts” typically found in the existing consensus standards. In this way their requirements could become regulations for compliance enforceable by OSHA as law.

On the other hand, consensus standards are filled with “nuts and bolts” language. They are detailed technical documents that provide rules, guidelines, and requirements for compliance for individual or groups of machines. Standards are generally developed combining procedures or processes as either informational recommendations or as compliance requirements using such conventions as “shall” or “will.”

Some confusion does arise from the fact that many consensus standards look very similar to the OSHA regulations. In fact, several ANSI standards are referenced by OSHA, which means that OSHA can then enforce the standards as law. This is called “incorporation by reference.” Additionally adding to the confusion, OSHA reserves the right to reference (typically consensus standards) in their “General Duty Clause.” An interpretation of this clause is that OSHA has a blanket capability for “incorporation by reference” at will.

Basic industry norms

It’s been my observation that industry generally operates under the following four principles:

1) Consensus standards (like ANSI) are not law. They are created by industry and generally are voluntary.

2) You can be cited by OSHA for not complying with a consensus standard, whether referenced or not.

3) Consensus standards (like ANSI) can become mandatory by either OSHA’s “incorporation by reference” or by the OSHA General Duty Clause.

4) You are not required to adopt any consensus standard. However, you could be cited by OSHA for not adopting one or more consensus standard relative to your business.

This is not an all inclusive list of principles on this subject but yet a summary of observations. Books are written on an array of principles to help industry define their business and establish their safety culture. And, states, cities and other code requirements can also weigh in on this discussion. And, you’re probably more confused than ever. Since OSHA “reserves the right” to reference any consensus standard, is there any clear legal directive in the U.S.?

We don’t have a “Machinery Directive” like in Europe listing all the standards for legal compliance. So, industry experts often recommend that U.S. companies identify all consensus standards relative to their business. Then, define and document every reason for adopting or rejecting any consensus standard, particularly if any standard is recommended in writing by anyone. And, keep current records documenting all considerations and solutions. A documented risk assessment and your mitigation plan decisions could become a very key document. Simply said, to be safe, don’t most folks in the U.S. assume that consensus standards are legal requirements for machine safety? 

As a safety leader, are you properly prepared for machine safety?

J.B. Titus, CFSE

Has this presented you with any new perspectives? Add your comments or thoughts to the discussion by submitting your ideas, experiences, and challenges in the comments section below.

Related articles:

Machine safety: Shared responsibility

Machine Safety – does OSHA reference consensus standards for compliance?

Machine Safety: Domestic U.S. versus international standards

Fred , , 10/17/13 01:53 PM:

The only things I'd add to this excellent summary of the confusion about ANSI standards are these: 1) OSHA and the state plan states have done a terrible job explaining these concepts to their troops. We fight to keep ANSI references out of citations frequently. 2) Despite the truth of the first stated "norm", plaintiff's attorneys and their experts use ANSI standards as mandates to prove negligence in product liability cases day in and out. So far I have not seen an appellate decision (at least not in California) which recognizes that the purpose of ANSI to advise, and not to legislate.
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