A Dangerous Combination

in our industry, accidents often involve electricity. Beyond the risk of shock and electrocution, electricity generates extreme heat and arc flashes, which can cause fires. Because of this relationship, we should always ensure we perform our electrical work in a manner that complies with the appropriate standards and codes to prevent fires and fire hazards.

When a fire occurs, we need to know how to respond. The following fatal accidents reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) involve fires that result from electricity during equipment maintenance or repair. They offer good insight on ways to avoid problems.

In October 2002, four employees were troubleshooting a 400-ampere main breaker. An arc flash occurred in the gearbox, causing a chain reaction of electric arcs and an ensuing fire. Two employees escaped through the main door. The others ran to an egress door that was locked from the outside. Attempts to force open the door failed, so they tried to escape through the main door. One employee made it. The other was found unconscious at the time of his rescue and later died of asphyxia resulting from smoke inhalation.

After the investigation, OSHA issued some serious citations:

• Design and construction of exit routes

• 1910.36(b)(1): there must be at least two exit routes available to permit prompt evacuation of employees during an emergency. Exits must be located so that, if fire or smoke blocks one, the other can still be used. Although there were two exits, the egress door was locked from the outside, making it unusable.

• 1910.36(d)(1): employees must, at all times, be able to open an exit route door from the inside without keys or tools. Panic bars that lock from the outside are permitted because they allow the door to open from the inside. Had the egress door opened, there might not have been a fatality.

• Electrical protective devices require insulating equipment to be inspected before use each day and immediately following an incident [1910.137(b)(2)(ii)]. It also requires insulating gloves to be air-tested. A failure in insulation may have caused the initial arc flash.

• General requirements [1910.303(g)(1)(v)] state that all working spaces around service equipment, switch boards and panelboards must be adequately illuminated. In electric equipment rooms, this lighting may not be controlled by automatic means only. Better lighting in the room may have made completing the task safer for these employees.

• Safeguards for personnel protection are required.

• 1910.335(a)(1)(i) requires employees who work where there is a potential for electrical hazard to be provided with and use electrical personal protective equipment (PPE) for the body parts that must be protected and for the work they are performing. Considering the lack of appropriate PPE, this incident could have been much worse.

• 1910.335(a)(1)(v) requires employees to wear protective equipment for the eyes or face whenever there is danger of an injury from electric arcs, flashes or explosions. Again, this accident could have resulted in many more serious injuries because of the lack of appropriate PPE.

The second accident occurred in August 2007 when two employees were removing the 120/240-volt electrical panel in a building while wearing tank tops and shorts. They disconnected circuit breakers and removed the panel’s supports before the utility company arrived to de-energize the circuit. The main victim was standing in front of the panel while his coworker was on a ladder above the panel. There was an arc flash and fire. Both employees were taken to the hospital; the main victim suffered severe burns on over 60 percent of his body and died two months later. His coworker’s legs were badly burned.

As a result, OSHA issued some serious citations:

• Selection and use of work practices

• 1910.333(a) states that safety-related work practices will be used to prevent electric shock or other injuries resulting from either direct or indirect electrical contact when working around energized circuits. These injuries could have been avoided had the employees waited for the utility to de-energize the circuit.

• 1910.333(b)(2) states that, when an employee is exposed to contact with parts of fixed electric equipment or circuits that have been de-energized, the circuits must be locked out or tagged out. These employees used no lockout/tagout procedure.

• 1910.333(c)(4)(i) states that employees are not to enter spaces with exposed energized parts unless adequate 
lighting is provided. Better lighting in the room may have made completing their task safer.

• Safeguards for personnel protection 
[1910.335(a)(1)(i)] is one of the same standards cited in the previous accident. Had these employees used the appropriate PPE for the task, including suitable work apparel, their injuries may have been minimized, and a fatality may have been prevented.

Both of these incidents could have easily been averted by simply following the common-sense safety precautions that OSHA set forth in its standards.

About the Author

Diane Kelly

Safety Columnist

Diane Kelly is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or dkell...

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