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Close Encounters of the AHJ Kind: Combustible Dust and the Authority Having Jurisdiction, P1

Written by AnnMarie Fauske | Jan 8, 2014 6:12:00 PM

Close Encounters of the AHJ Kind: Combustible Dust and the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), Part 1, by Tim Cullina, Senior Consulting Engineer, Fauske & Associates, LLC

When it comes to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) combustible dust standards, just who is the “authority having jurisdiction” and just how much authority do they have anyway?

The term “authority having jurisdiction,” commonly referred to as AHJ, is deliberately vague and covers a variety of organizations, not all of them governmental. By NFPA 654 definition, the authority having jurisdiction is "An organization, office, or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure." 

That's fairly broad authority, and generally speaking, more than any single government office or agency usually maintains. Since agencies, offices, bureaus, and their responsibilities vary from town to town and state to state, the appropriate AHJ for a particular issue may be the building department or town engineer in one municipality and the fire chief or an elected official in another.  NFPA makes this uncontrolled variability a bit more clear in the annex to each of the combustible standards. 

In the annex to NFPA 654 for example, NFPA states: "Where public safety is primary, the authority having jurisdiction may be a federal, state, local, or other regional department or individual such as a fire chief; fire marshal; chief of a fire prevention bureau, labor department, or health department; building official; electrical inspector; or others having statutory authority."   Chances are good that you may have two or more AHJs in your local government, with others lurking at the state or federal levels.  Typically, these are the "permit people" that I like to call AHJs of the first kind.  They may not be familiar with your applicable NFPA standards, especially if you are a "one of a kind" enterprise in their jurisdiction, but that does not reduce their authority.  It simply adds emphasis to your responsibility.

The NFPA 654 annex reference goes on further to state: "For insurance purposes, an insurance inspection department, rating bureau, or other insurance company representative may be the authority having jurisdiction." In addition, NFPA identifies that, "In many circumstances, the property owner or his or her designated agent assumes the role of the authority having jurisdiction...".  These are your "non-governmental, doing-business" AHJs. I call these AHJs of the second kind.  Similar to the permit people mentioned previously, they may or may not be familiar with your applicable NFPA standards.

There is yet a third kind of AHJ; the inspectors. Typically, inspectors work for either the "permit" or "doing-business" AHJs, but not always. In a perfect world, they act as the guardians of both the public and private interests.  This group includes OSHA and the most powerful AHJ of them all, which I will address later in this series.  And no, it is not the NFPA.   

OSHA is an AHJ of this third kind. But, just like all the others, restricted to the limits of their authority and just like all the others, to the limits of their knowledge.  OSHA does not issue permits, like an AHJ of the first kind. It is not OSHA's place to "approve equipment, materials, an installation, or a procedure", like an AHJ of the second kind. (Fie to any company that advertises "OSHA-approved" products.) However, OSHA does enforce workplace safety standards.  Since many safety standards, such as Hazard Communications, are performance-oriented standards that overlap with NFPA standards, OSHA has a mandate to evaluate, whether equipment, materials, installations, and procedures help or hinder workplace safety. 

The most powerful AHJ is not EPA, even though it is an AHJ of all three kinds.  The most powerful AHJ, is the corporation, business owner, sole proprietor - essentially the "head honcho" in your organization.  Typically, that authority and the bounds of its jurisdiction are divided and distributed across the organization.  Few organizations divvy up the authority exactly the same way.  So looking at a chart of AHJs, of any kind, is like looking into a fun-house mirror.  Isn't it Pogo who said, "We have seen the enemy, and he is us."

In the next blog, I will continue with "Sleeping with Enemy: Combustible Dust and the Authorities having Jurisdiction (AHJ), Part 2".

In the mean time, consider the value that Fauske and Associates, LLC, (FAI) can provide to your efforts navigating applicable NFPA, OSHA, and EPA standards.  Our experts in Combustible Dust Explosion and Fire Hazard Evaluation, Process Hazard Analysis (PHA), Hazard Identification Risk Analysis, Consequence Analysis, Safer Process Scale-up, Process Safety Program Development, and Relief System Design Review are always here to help.  For more information, please contact Jeff Griffin at griffin@fauske.com or 630-887-5278.