Twenty-five years ago, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) first prepared a set of standards to ensure electrical workers were safe on their jobs. So why has this standard-known as the NFPA 70e-suddenly become such a big deal? While the standard has been around since 1979, it has been revised several times. The 2004 edition was revised again but this time with new usability, clarity and relevancy to the latest technology, making it easy to read and easy to follow.

NFPA 70E addresses electrical safety requirements for employees who work on or around exposed energized electrical conductors or circuit parts. It covers installation of electrical conductors, electric equipment, signaling, and communications conductors and equipment and is intended to be used by service personnel as well as on-site and outside employers.

But how important is the NFPA 70E standard? It is essential for anyone who hires electricians, according to both NECA and NFPA spokesmen. In essence, it is a consensus-based practical solution to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that has a record of accomplishment for worker safety. But among contractors and businesses, there is still some confusion about how the standard is to be used and how it works in relation to OSHA. While the 70E standard is not enforceable, compliance with it results in compliance with OSHA regulations, which are enforceable.

To put it simply, OSHA regulations are enforceable, while the 70E standards are a practical solution to those regulations. While OSHA tells contractors that their electricians must be safe under all circumstances, the 70E details how that can be done. OSHA has no plans to adopt the standard, but readily supports its guidelines. In fact, OSHA was the agency that first went to NFPA and asked for a standard to ensure safety in the workplace. Since then, there has been an OSHA member without voting rights on the Committee on Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces-NFPA 70E.

Kenneth Mastrullo, NFPA senior electrical specialist, said 70E goes hand in hand with OSHA requirements, and people are embracing it.

“It offers practical application for those OSHA requirements.” he said. “OSHA is not adopting 70E; they're looking at it as a basis of how to provide electrical safety in the workplace.”

What 70E suggests

The 70E standard addressses three basic hazards-arc flash, arc blast and electric shock-all of which could potentially cause burns, blindness or death, and offers guidelines to prevent them under a variety of circumstances. Hazardous flash can occur in any electrical device in which energy is high enough to sustain an arc, regardless of voltage. This can include many 440-volt motor control centers, panelboards and switchboards. An arc of this type, which can last for less than a second, can reach temperatures in excess of 14,000 F.

When working on or near energized equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE)-such as flash-resistant clothing and face shielding and insulated gloves and tools-is essential, Mastrullo said. This kind of gear is unfamiliar to some more seasoned electricians, but the 70E standard may change that. Boundary distances are another safety issue raised by 70E. These distances vary depending on both the qualifications of the person being exposed and the potential hazards. Qualified personnel must accompany unqualified personnel. All employees must wear specified protective equipment according to the potential hazards of the job.

One reason 70E has emerged as the safety standard to be adopted is because the National Electrical Code (NEC) and OSHA both mention it in their documents. Citations have been written based on 70E. The NFPA 70E also gains credibility by the fact that it is a “national consensus standard.” This means the same people it affects were the ones who developed it, and the standard was then adopted by a nationally recognized organization. It is developed and issued in an open consensus process as well.

Several of the OSHA regulations are written in general terms, leaving the details up to the employer on how to comply. The employer is expected to use consensus standards to help in the selection of the best method to achieve compliance with the OSHA regulations. NFPA 70E is a “how to comply” standard for specific OSHA regulations.

The employer is responsible for providing a workplace free from all recognized hazards. Although it is not a mandatory standard, if a contractor were to suffer an injury or death due to an electrical accident and OSHA determines 70E compliance would have prevented or lessened the injury, OSHA may cite the employer under the “general duty clause” for not using the techniques and requirements of 70E to protect the employee.

Brooke Stauffer, NECA executive director, standards and safety, has witnessed the rising interest and confusion in the industry about 70E. “This is not a wiring standard,” he said. “The NEC is how you wire. 70E is how you do it safely.” The importance of 70E cannot be overstressed, Stauffer added. “It is the future of our industry where safety is concerned.”

One practice 70E is likely to change is working with live wires. The standard aligns with the OSHA regulations that require work to be performed de-energized. If a situation makes it infeasible to do so, customers requiring the work be done “live” need to sign a “work permit” agreeing that they insisted the work be done that way. That signature shifts liability to the customer in the event of an accident. “In the long run, we are heading for a world where people work de-energized,” Stauffer said. “Everybody wants their workers to go home at night.”

If electricians have to work live, they also have to consider the necessary PPEs, including hardhats, goggles, insulated gloves, insulated tools and full arc-flash suits in some cases. Tables in 70E list 85 different tasks and, for each, it details what PPE should be worn. This will be a big change for old-school electricians. The basic uniform for many has been, and still is, a T-shirt and jeans or shorts, depending on the weather. That, Stauffer said, will soon be a dress code of the past.

“The state of knowledge has advanced,” Stauffer said.

Other standards include lockout/tagout procedures requiring electricians to lock the circuit breaker after turning it off, making sure it is not turned on inadvertently.

Common concerns

One of the most common concerns about the standard is the cost of buying PPEs for all the company electricians. That may vary, depending on the work force and will be more disruptive for those who had no PPEs available before. Stauffer added that most electricians supply their own PPEs when it involves personal items such as gloves, hard hats and shoes. Other equipment can be expensive to acquire. But, Mastrullo said, “How are you going to afford not to?” The expense related to an accident, especially in any litigation that results, is considerably more than the expense of buying new equipment. Also, workers' compensation is a consideration; it's another advantage to supplying PPEs. PPE equipment, such as arc flash equipment, costs about $1,000 for a typical employee, according to Michael Toman, president of Mega Power Electrical Services in Gaithersburg, Md. “But,” he pointed out, “electrical safety in the workplace is an investment in your future.”

The other concern is productivity. For example, electricians cannot work as fast wearing heavy gloves-the cumbersome gloves keep them safe but inhibit movement. Mastrullo recalled his own experience as an IBEW member decades ago, when protective gear was almost nonexistent. He found that during dangerous work, electricians worked more slowly just to ensure their own safety. In fact, that slowdown could have been greater than the slower movement of hands encased in protective gear. Mega Power accommodates for the productivity adjustment as well. “We have adjusted our labor units when bidding projects to include the cost of the additional labor,” Toman said. “Project schedules can still remain intact with proper planning.”

Beyond all the concerns, a change in the safety culture is taking place, beginning with new apprentices who receive training in PPE and safe practices. “NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace” costs $35, which pays for some of the costs related to printing and disseminating the book as well as educating people in its use. Mastrullo travels around the country offering workshops that help teach groups how to interpret and use the standards. In some parts of the country, local JATCs are also offering training on 70E for their apprentices and even some for journeymen. Eventually that may be available in every chapter as well.

As Mastrullo wrote in a recent essay, “Minimizing the hazard is the biggest obstacle to an electrical safe workplace...it is common to hear people say that they received a 'mild shock' or 'we have done this for years without a problem, we do not need personal protective equipment.'”

He added: “The work culture has dictated that real electricians can work it hot. Getting a shock is all part of the business. Many workers refer to these incidents as mild shocks. Is this like a mild heart attack? You do not see a welder working without protective equipment, why do some electricians work without protection? Electricians should be afforded the same level of protection as any other worker.”

Fisk Electric has been at the forefront of employing 70E practices in all its regional offices. Stephen Thorwegen Jr., regional vice president at Fisk Electric in Houston, has served on 70E code panels for five cycles. Since making safety a commitment, Fisk Electric has made dramatic changes to its EMR safety standards. With a high rating of 1.32 in 1987, they knew they needed to make changes. By the late 1990s they had slashed that number to .29.

“It is the best way to ensure installation safety,” Thorwegen said of 70E. He pointed to the death of a Fisk Electric electrician in 1991. Safety, Thorwegen said, needs to be a top priority for management. “It's one thing to put up a bunch of safety posters and have meetings,” he said. Because the latest version of 70E is so approachable, following it becomes even more straightforward. “It's not rocket-scientist stuff,” he pointed out.

Fisk Electric not only uses 70E, it holds weekly safety meetings and offers regular training sessions. He said, “If you need help, there are lots of experts out there to help you make this work.” For those who are managing without 70E, Thorwegen said, “They're lucky right now. But luck runs out.”

“It is essential for contractors to get moving on 70E simply because this standard provides for a complete safety program that will propel our industry to the forefront of electrical safety in the 21st century,” Toman said. The program served to reduce accidents, he added, causing improved safety experience records and ultimately reduced insurance premiums. Toman is a member of the National Electrical Code Technical Correlating Committee, which correlates information provided in this standard and the approval of the Report on Proposals and the Report on Comments stages of 70E.

“A lot of people look at it as practical application,” Mastrullo said. “It's a benchmark of what you should be providing to be in compliance.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.