As the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E standard takes root in electrical practices, getting the right training to the right people has become the greatest hurdle in changing the way electricians do their job.

While apprentices are coming out of their various training programs with an understanding of the safe practices of the 70E standard, many electrical and general contractors still need to get the word.

For smaller contacting companies who are concerned about payment, training provides them with information about what they need, when they need it and if they can pass the cost on to customers.

NFPA 70E is here to stay, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is using the standard to determine compliance with its own mandates. NFPA 70E addresses electrical safety requirements for employees who work near exposed energized electrical conductors and circuit parts.

It covers installation and maintenance of electric equipment, signaling and communications conductors and is used by servicing personnel as well as on-site and off-site employers.

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. It has become a template for OSHA officers to determine whether safe practices were adhered to. OSHA has written citations based on 70E and is training its officers in the NFPA standard. NFPA 70E also gains credibility because it is a “national consensus standard.”

This means it was developed by the same people it affects and then was adopted by a nationally recognized organization. It was developed and is issued in an open consensus process.

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

The remaining barrier for most is letting their customers know what the standard is and why they follow it. This information must also be conveyed to their electricians.

Educational options are growing, and contractors have several choices. A National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) course developed several years ago was geared toward OSHA safety-related work practice requirements, electricalhazard awareness and NFPA 70E.

The current revised course, which began in April 2004, is built around the safety- related work practices from the 2004 edition of the 70E standard. According to Palmer Hickman, NJATC director of Safety, Codes, and Standards, the demand for more training is swelling in the past few months.

“The demand is incredible,” Hickman said. “We've been hugely successful [with the course].”

Rather than try to train each individual electrical contractor as well as others in the construction industry, the NJATC gears the course to train its participants to train others. It is not just electricians around the table either. Customers such as Intel, Disney and Motorola have also participated in NJATC safety course focusing on 70E, Hickman said.

“We've seen great acceptance from contractors and workers,” he said.

It comes down to knowing how long you can afford to be shut down if an electrical accident occurs. The key to knowing this is getting everyone on the same page.

The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) offers a course that focuses on NFPA 70E and general safe practices. This course is one of NECA's Management Education Institute (MEI) offerings that will come to local chapter on-site when needed.

Already, NFPA and NECA instructors have visited chapter offices around the country to help contractors clarify whether they are in compliance with 70E and if not, how to get there and establish a company safety program.

Learning how to use 70E requires some effort. MEI's course (which requires at 12 participants and averages 15 to 20) provides volumes of material for contractors who are new to the standard, and to those who want to ensure their own safety program is compliant. Every NECA chapter has an interest in providing contractors with information about how they can be in safety compliance.

Typical contractors who come to the course have a general idea of safety procedures but need to know what isr equired of them. That includes finding out whether they are doing enough or too much to comply with OSHA standards and 70E.

Vince Miller, CSP, safety director for Washington, D.C., NECA chapter, offers a half-day course for his chapter on electrical safety practices and principles.

The course includes information about 70E, the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing and the requirements and limitations of the equipment. By taking the course, contractors learn when protective equipment is needed, how to use it and how to test the equipment on the job.

The hardest sell for customers and electricians is also the most important aspect of the standard-that electrical work should be done dead. In nearly every case, Miller said, electricians need to have the power turned off before they get to work.

If a situation makes that impossible, customers requiring the work done live need to sign a work permit stating that they insisted the work be done that way. That signature shifts liability to the customer in the event of an accident.

If electricians have to work live, they must use the necessary PPE, including hard hats, goggles, insulated gloves, insulated tools and, in some cases, full arc flash suits. Tables in 70E list 85 different tasks and details what PPE should be worn for each.

Even with that protection, working live can be costly. If an arc flash occurs, and the electrician is wearing the proper PPEs, he will walk home safely, but the PPEs will have to be replaced.

“That can be $800 to $1,000 a piece,” Miller said. “And there's nowhere to recoup that expense.”

Many contractors fear that if they require the customer to shut down the power, the customer will go to a competitor who doesn't make the same demand. That concern is beginning to diminish as more in the industry are accepting the necessary changes fueled by 70E and OSHA.

While Miller said some contractors have reported that they indeed lost business to a competitor that would work live, his contractors had to come back to repair what wasn't done correctly.

Training customers in the safety standards is a daunting but necessary task for many contractors. Some of the larger contractors already have their own training program underway to help their customer base understand what 70E means.

Some contractors have taken another step: charging their customers more-often as much as three times more-if they insist the electrician performs the work live. That extra charge, contractors reason, pays for the expense of using the added PPEs necessary to work safely.

Because many nonunion electrical contractors are also adopting 70E, customers will eventually have no option but to embrace the safety standard on their own. Once they gain the training, few argue about its importance.

“It's moving a mountain,” Miller said, “We're changing behavior. It's a slow curve. There's no initiative on the part of OSHA to adopt 70E, but it is on the table.”

Hickman encourages his customers to be familiar with the safety-related work practices contained in OSHA and the 70E safety standard.

Echoing the thoughts of other trainers, Hickman said that if a contractor asks for the power to be disconnected, and the customer insists that is too great a burden, it might be because the customers does not understand the requirement.

Just implementing changes has been the goal of many contractors, and often that means getting the basic training. Learning what the NFPA 70E standard means to contractors was a start toward a necessary change.

David Loutzenhiser, president of DJL Inc. (KB Electric), Michigan City, Ind., said the course offered by his chapter provided him with the information he needs to implement a 70E-compliant safety program for his small company.

Loutzenhiser said that getting the older electricians to make changes in their procedures was the greatest hurdle.

“People get used to doing things a certain way and getting them to change takes time,” he said.

For a small shop, Loutzenhiser said, heavy, full body PPEs are less likely and for his work, voltage-rated gloves can be the most important tool.

“For the bulk of my work that would cover it,” he said.

Darrell Schwartz, president of Schwartz Electric Inc., Wakarusa. Ind., took a training course and said he was happy with what he gained from it. Much of the work Schwartz does is in public schools and government-related jobs.

“As a whole, most general contractors are in good compliance,” Schwartz said.

In the meantime, he is using what he gained at the course to set up his own safety program.

“I highly recommend it if you're trying to stay in compliance,” he said.

He worries, however, that the cost of the PPEs will adversely affect business for those in compliance.

“Nobody wants anybody to get hurt,” he said. “[But] is [a good safety program] going to cost us business down the road? I think it will.” EC

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