Concerns About OSHA’s Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Drones

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OSHA regulations help ensure that drones are used safely.On Feb. 13, 2020, the pharmaceutical manufacturing plant PCI Synthesis in Newburyport, MA, experienced a series of chemical explosions that resulted in emergency personnel being dispatched to the location. According to The Eagle-Tribune article, “State: Chemical Reaction Caused Explosions,” the Newburyport Fire Department worked together with the Joint Hazard Incident Response Team to piece together the events that caused the blasts.

Because of the dangers involved and unknown variables that could easily have led to further incidents, the Department of Fire Services’ Special Operations Unit utilized an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, to provide close-up footage that allowed investigators to assess the situation safely. Only after the situation was stabilized and deemed safe did the state fire marshal enter the building to complete the investigation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is dedicated to providing safe workplaces for American workers, but OSHA must also ensure its own safety while conducting potentially dangerous inspections and investigations. Modern technology allows health and safety inspectors to take advantage of remote piloted drones fitted with high-definition camera equipment. But OSHA drone regulations are required to ensure that drones are used safely.

How the Use of Drones Reduces Safety Risks

Safety inspections, either by contractors looking over their own work or by OSHA investigators, often carry with them their own liabilities and risks. A roof inspection inherently involves a fall risk by inspectors walking around on sloped and potentially slippery roofs. Building collapses and on-site fires also present obstacles for safe inspections due to unsure footing, reduced access, and structural weaknesses.

Sending a human being into such situations puts that their life at risk, even when they observe other safety precautions. But sending a machine into an unstable environment limits health and safety risks substantially.

“UAVs can monitor construction sites, especially large sites or those spread out over several locations, often more quickly and efficiently than on-the-ground construction management,” writes safety and health specialist April Dorsey in “Using Drones to Monitor Construction Safety” on IHSFNA.org.

“UAVs can be equipped with infrared cameras, radar and other technology that enhances their surveillance capabilities on a jobsite. This information is useful for tracking not only construction progress but also workers, equipment and material on a jobsite.”

Other areas where safety professionals and construction site administrators can benefit from drones include monitoring job progress, maintenance assessments, improved communication (via built-in transmitters on drones), search and rescue operations, and improved documentation of jobsite conditions.

In the near future, many drones will also be capable of X-ray imaging and 3-dimensional mapping of objects using Wi-Fi signals, which could come in handy when monitoring structural integrity in and around areas that are normally hidden from view, such as behind walls and underground.

The Proper Use of OSHA Drones

Because crewless vehicles technically fly in open air space, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established rules regarding the commercial or industrial use of drones.

“OSHA Drone Inspections: What You Need to Know” on Safety.BLR.com details the regulations, which apply to business use of drones:

  • The drone must be piloted by a Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) who has passed an FAA Aeronautical Knowledge Test and maintains a Remote Pilot certification.
  • The drone must be registered with the FAA.
  • The RPIC must maintain a line-of-sight with the drone.
  • Drone operations are limited to daylight hours.
  • Drones cannot travel at over 100 mph.
  • Drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet above ground, except within 400 feet of a structure (and then no more than 400 feet above the structure’s highest point).
  • Drones must stay away from and yield to all manned aircraft.

Additionally, UAVs used for OSHA purposes must also abide by OSHA’s own set of rules. On May 18, 2018, OSHA issued an internal memorandum to its regional administrators regarding proper operating procedures for drone use during inspection activities, according to “Did You Know OSHA Has a Drone Inspection Policy?” on the American Society of Safety Professionals website.

According to the memorandum, OSHA requires that:

  • Drones remain in plain view of everyone working in the area being inspected.
  • Employers must consent to the use of drones for inspection purposes.
  • Employers can work with OSHA to develop a specific flight plan to ensure that a proper inspection is done without, for example, giving the drone access to an area where trade secrets might be revealed (and thus open to the public via the Freedom of Information Act).
  • If other violations are inadvertently discovered, such as Environmental Protection Agency violations, they can be shared with the agency responsible for handling such violations.

The use of drones in commercial and industrial settings, especially where health and safety inspections are concerned, will increase as technology improves. Health and safety professionals can expect to encounter them in their careers and should plan to familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations of drone use.

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Recommended Reading:

ESH Compliance: General Industry Guidelines

Occupational Health and Safety Specialists: A Day in the Life

The Foundations of Hazard Control

Sources:

State: Chemical Reaction Caused Explosions – EagleTribune.com

Using Drones to Monitor Construction Safety – IHSFNA.org

OSHA Drone Inspections: What You Need to Know – Safety.BLR.com

Did You Know OSHA Has a Drone Inspection Policy? – ASSP.org