A Fatal Lesson

By Joe O'Connor | Aug 15, 2003




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Electrocution is the No. 1 cause of fatalities in the electrical construction industry. On the surface, this may seem natural. The focus of the work involves electricity. But consider this: electricians are supposed to be highly skilled at handling dangerous electrical energy. Years of training and on-the-job experience working under the guidance of a more knowledgeable member of the trade are required. To complicate the issue further, these deaths are not just caused by high-voltage incidents. So the question is, “Why?”

To gain insight into the dilemma, this article will share an accident analysis performed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The case concerns a 45-year-old male electrician in Wisconsin who was fatally injured while installing electrical wiring in a residence under construction. The general contractor found his body after going to the site because the electrician had failed to respond to phone calls. By the time the police and emergency medical services arrived, rigor mortis had already set in.

An initial review of the scene revealed that the man had been drilling holes in some overhead joists. The power source for the drill was a temporary power pole outside the residence. The connection was made by a series of three extension cords connected to a Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupter (GFCI) receptacle mounted on the pole. The fuse box for the 120V, single-phase 15 and 20A receptacle outlets contained two 40A fuses. The temporary construction power pole was properly grounded and met all federal, state and local codes. It had been certified by the local municipality.

Upon further investigation, it was determined that the drill had become energized. A continuous ground was not maintained. Two of the three extension cords were missing the ground prong. One cord was missing insulation at both ends. The cords lay in puddles of water, both on the floor in the residence as well as in rainwater where the cords extended out to the temporary power pole. The GFCI, when tested, was inoperable.

Based on the results of the investigation, NIOSH had the following recommendations.

Employers should:

1. Ensure that electrical service supplied to a construction site complies with all Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, the National Electric Code and local regulations.

2. Implement a preventive maintenance program to keep cords, plugs, receptacles and tools in good operating condition.

3. Test GFCIs on a daily basis.

4. Evaluate work areas to identify hazardous work conditions.

From an OSHA perspective, the electrician was in direct violation of the regulations. OSHA mandates that cords and equipment maintain a continuous ground. The missing ground prongs on the extension cords would represent at least one citation. OSHA can cite each cord separately. Both the cords and the GFCI could also be cited for their defects.

OSHA requires that all electrical cords and equipment be examined to insure they are “free from recognized hazards.” The missing insulation and the inoperability of the GFCI are definite hazards. The fault in the drill that caused the energization is also a defect. It could be cited under this provision as well. The OSHA standard on electric power-operated tools defers to this section covering electrical safety.

Other citations might include failure to use an approved GFCI and to perform frequent and regular inspections. An inspection would have revealed the water hazard and faulty equipment. Cords could have been placed away from puddles or strung overhead in an appropriate manner.

Regardless of which perspective you take, the results are the same. Hazards appeared to have been ignored. Assuming this electrician had at least some basic knowledge about electricity, even that equivalent to a layperson’s, the danger should have been easily recognizable: water and electricity don’t mix. Insulation is a basic protection from electricity. Equipment must be tested to ensure it is in operable condition before each use.

Therefore, this accident might suggest that familiarity with the hazards often yields the opposite of what is expected. Rather than respect for electrical hazards, electricians become complacent. This allows conditions to develop in which injury or death are inevitable. This may be the case in many accidents.

Consider your habits as well as those of fellow workers. How much attention is given to basics when working with only 120V? In an ideal world, everyone would perform the daily inspection and replace defective cords and equipment no matter what the voltage or job to be performed. All jobs must be treated with respect and all safety rules observed at all times. EC

O’CONNOR is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or [email protected].


About The Author

Joe O'Connor is with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Based in Waverly, Pa., he can be reached at 607.624.7159 or [email protected].





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