The term “safe” is defined as a state that is secure from the liability to harm, injury, danger or risk. The basic condition of being safe involves actions taken to remain protected or guarded from danger and to reduce risks to the lowest possible level. During May—National Electrical Safety Month—specific emphasis and attention are placed on the awareness of electrical hazards and the methods and techniques employed to reduce risks from such hazards.


Improving the culture


Electricity is a powerful force that can injure or kill people who are exposed to electrical hazards. The three main hazards described in Annex K of NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, are electric shock, arc blast and arc flash.


Electric shock results from contact with energized circuit parts, which damage the body from the inside out. The degree of injury is often directly related to the path of electrical current through the body.


Workers face arc flash and arc blast hazards when working in a location that exposes them to such injuries during an arcing incident. An arc-flash event results in burns to exposed body parts that are received from the outside. The degree of burn is directly related to the amount of arc energy and time of exposure during an arcing event.


Approximately 30,000 nonfatal electrical shock incidents occur annually. According to the National Safety Council, about 1,000 fatalities each year are due to electrocution (death by electric shock). Electrocution is the fourth-leading cause of industrial fatalities, after homicides, traffic accidents and construction accidents.


These statistics are far too high, indicating so much more work is to be done to improve safety for electrical workers. This article provides an in-depth look at electrical safety in the workplace, how it is achieved and some related electrical safety philosophies that must be established on both an organizational and an individual level.


Eliminating the electrical hazards


Electrical safety is addressed within NFPA 70E and within Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations in a hierarchy and methodical approach. The first method is clearly to eliminate or remove the hazard—in other words, to shut the power off before working on the equipment. NFPA 70E refers to this as establishing an electrically safe working condition. Shut the power off and verify it is off so that work on equipment or circuit parts can be performed safely.


NFPA 70E is all about identifying, reducing or eliminating electrical hazards as the primary method of achieving safe work environments. The standard also includes information about how to properly protect workers when and if justified energized work must be performed.


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Informational Note No. 1 to Section 130.1(G) provides the safety controls hierarchy. This methodical approach includes a sequence in priority including elimination, substitution, engineering controls, awareness, administrative controls and use of personal protective equipment (PPE).


Notice that use of PPE is the hierarchy’s last method or choice. There are some situations where removal of the hazard is not possible, or it is not feasible to perform certain tasks in a de-energized state, such as circuit testing and troubleshooting. 


Understanding this hierarchy is important in establishing and maintaining a good electrical safety culture. It requires effective communication between the employer and the employee so expectations are understood.


Electrical safety responsibilities


As NFPA 70E requirements pertain to both employers and employees, ECs and their employees share responsibility in achieving electrical safety in workplaces and compliance. 


The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) addresses this issue within its Standing Policy 19, “Safety Programs and Safe Workers” (see sidebar on page 68). This policy contains specific language to indicate safety is an important responsibility shared between employers and employees and affirmation that implementing safe work practices is required and not optional.


Trained and qualified workers are responsible for recognizing and avoiding workplace hazards, and, where necessary, employers provide the required PPE for workers exposed to electrical hazards. ECs who follow safe work practices appreciate the benefits of a workplace free from injuries, the advantage of a productive work force, and the responsibility of offering a safe working environment. To that end, to achieve zero injuries in the workplace, contractors must strive for zero energized work environments as the normal and best practice whenever achievable.


Electrical safety programs and policies


ECs are required to develop and maintain a safety program that addresses safety from electrical hazards. NFPA 70E clearly indicates that employers must provide electrical safety-related work practices and ensure that employees are trained in these requirements.


It is one thing to have an electrical safety program; it is another to effectively implement its provisions to achieve safe work environments for electrical workers. This is where company policies come into play. An EC’s safety program is only as good as the policies that drive compliance with it. The employer and employee must do his or her share of the lifting. If either is complacent or neglectful, safety is usually compromised. Employers must ensure employees understand the requirements within their company safety program. The responsibility for compliance rests with the employee.


Understanding electrical hazards and risks


The term “hazard” is simply defined in NFPA 70E as a source of possible injury or damage to health. The term “risk” is defined as the combination of the likelihood of injury or damage to health resulting from an electrical hazard. NFPA 70E requires assessments for risk of shock and risk of arc flash.


A risk assessment is required and must be addressed as a process to be most effective. This process includes identification of the hazards, an estimate of the degree of injury or damage to health, and an estimate of the likelihood of an incident that could result in injury or death from the identified electrical hazards.


In carrying out the shared responsibilities for electrical safety, employees and employers must be on the same page. Employers must trust that employees are not violating safety rules that put them at risk. Employees must understand the risks and work at not putting themselves in harm’s way. Employees should avoid taking risks involving electrical hazards because the risks can have far-reaching effects.


The impacts


Three entities could be affected by workers taking risks related to electrical shock and arc flash hazards. First, there is risk to the employee’s safety and well-being. This risk is injury or death. The second entity impacted by risks is the employee’s family. The third entity is the employer.


As an example, a recent arc-flash incident on a construction project resulted in a fatality. The victim had a spouse and children whose lives will never be the same because a safety rule or policy was not followed. Furthermore, the death potentially carries financial and legal rammifications for the company as well as demoralizing effects on its workforce.


For an electrical safety culture to improve and for the high number of statistics indicated above to be reduced, both the employer and employee must agree to implement the provisions of company safety programs through policies that will reduce the risk of exposure to electrical hazards. 


See NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, for complete requirements related to electrical safety and how to achieve it. 


Safety, especially electrical safety, is a way of life—live it.