Though May is officially National Electrical Safety Month, the statistics for electrocution of electricians indicate that we should make it an everyday event. People have been “playing” with electricity since the 6th century B.C. when Thales of Miletus conducted tests with different objects to create static and sparks. For the more than 700,000 electricians in the United States taking on increasingly challenging jobs with the escalating use of electrical energy and telecommunications, it is often a balance between working faster and working safely. Though no one would ever suggest compromising safety, the reality is that there are facilities that will not shut down for electrical work, requiring significant safety precautions to have an electrically safe work environment.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities surveillance system, the fifth-leading cause of accidental death in the United States is electrocution. There are approximately 140 deaths each year in the electrical trades, with electricians accounting for 5 percent of total deaths in the building trades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This occurs despite requirements of at least 144 hours of classroom instruction a year and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training for a three- to five-year apprenticeship.
Overall, NIOSH investigated 224 electrocution incidents that resulted in fatalities. Supervision was present at the site in 120 (53 percent) of the incidents, and 42 victims were supervisors. Of the 244 victims, 39 of them had received no training and 100 (41 percent) of the victims had been on the job for less than one year. Forty (54 percent) of the lower voltage electrocutions involved accidents at 120/240 volts. NIOSH found that of the 147 incidents on medium- and high-voltage systems, 111 (76 percent) occurred at distribution voltage levels (7.2–13.8 kV).
After analyzing these cases, NIOSH identified five scenarios that describe the incidents resulting in the 244 fatalities: direct worker contact with an energized powerline (28 percent), direct worker contact with energized equipment (21 percent), boomed vehicle contact with an energized powerline (18 percent), improperly installed or damaged equipment (17 percent) and conductive equipment contact with an energized powerline (16 percent).
In 2000, the Construction Industry Reference Group conducted a survey of more than 275 electrical workers to assess their attitudes on safety. When asked what kinds of unsafe things electricians do, the electrical workers’ top responses included working on live circuits when they don’t need to, taking shortcuts, failure to implement and follow safe work practices, working long hours and becoming tired and fatigued, and taking the attitude of “production first” rather than “safety first.”
The top reasons for such behavior included laziness with safety; failure to assess the risk and/or recognize the consequences; cost and pressure by the customer and builder to work live, unrealistic time schedules that lead to pressure; and the inability to isolate because the boards or circuits are not labeled properly. With regard to how to reduce this, 96 percent of participants recommended actions, such as investigation into the bad behavior, suspension or fines for repeat offenders, retraining and rewarding good safety performance.
Implementing an effective electrical safety program, such as described in NFPA 70E-2009 Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, is proving to be an effective way to decrease electrical injuries by providing information and a structure to address safety issues involving equipment, training and workplace practices.
The NFPA 70E-2009 standard offers examples of how to comply instead of simply stating you have to comply, said Palmer Hickman, director of code and safety training and curriculum development at National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. Employers must be responsible, and that begins by acknowledging that problems really do exist in the current system and working to eliminate electrical injury or the potential for injury. It can be considered burdensome to put new procedures into practice, but safety is not optional.
The United States will face an 8 percent shortage of electricians by 2016, due to increased industry need as well as to replace current electricians who will retire, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is of great importance to recruit and train electricians who are able to perform their jobs effectively and safely. Industry associations continue to address this issue and have been actively promoting apprenticeship programs.
Though it is easy to take the benefits of electricity for granted, we must not take for granted the skilled individuals who often put themselves in harm’s way to keep us cool and plugged in.
It is critical that training be increased, proper procedures followed, proper tools used and safe environments and behaviors be followed ensuring worker and public safety every day. Safety is not a once-a-year event.
BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.