Electricians are trained to avoid shock hazards, but that doesn’t mean they always pay heed. The consequences can either be deadly or cumulative enough to cause irreparable harm.
In 2019, electrical shocks accounted for 1,340 nonfatal workplace electrical injuries, though many of the incidents—and a majority (64%) of the deaths—involved workers in other trades and professions who had little or no electrical safety training, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) in Rosslyn, Va.
Overhead power lines continue to be a leading cause of electrical fatalities, said Brett Brenner, ESFI’s president.
“By establishing clear limits of approach and encouraging all workers, electrical and nonelectrical, to be aware of their surroundings by ‘always looking up, all ways,’ many instances can be prevented as many fatalities occur when workers inadvertently encounter overhead hazards,” Brenner said.
More than half of the electrocutions involving electrical workers are caused by direct contact of a power source, or indirect contact with live electrical equipment and wiring, including light fixtures, circuit breakers, control panels, junction boxes and transformers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Safety veteran Hugh Hoagland, service line lead at ArcWear (a division of Kinectrics, Louisville, Ky.), has conducted more than 200 accident investigations. Most of the shock incidents were due to someone touching something that was energized that they thought was dead. A common example is changing a lighting ballast in a large commercial building.
“Turning off the light switch doesn’t de-energize all the conductors,” Hoagland said. “Secondly, while a ballast might only have 277 volts, if a person is also holding onto a metal pipe when extended from the ceiling, like a water pipe, they can get hung up and killed.”
Workers can also get shocked when testing or working with 42V control wires without protective gloves if their hand slips and touches other energized items inside the cabinet, he said.
The use of portable corded electric tools without the use of ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) can cause shock, as well as working energized without justification or performing justified energized work without using shock protection, said Todd Stafford, executive director for the Electrical Training Alliance in Bowie, Md.
“Some strive to make working de-energized their goal, but de-energizing is not the same as locked out and tagged out,” Stafford said. “De-energized is not the same as an electrically safe work condition—it’s just one step in these processes.”
Why this is happening
Michael J. Johnston, executive director of codes and standards at NECA, said some electricians have become “complacent” after years of work in the electrical field.
“There’s a sense that, if they’re not near high-voltage, it can’t hurt or kill them. But that’s a real misconception,” Johnston said. “The statistics involving electrical shock injury and death usually involve circuits with 250 volts or less. I truly believe that far too many energized work risks are being taken by electrical workers, and the employer is unaware until there is an incident.”
Indeed, many of the 600 safety-trained workers surveyed last year by Littelfuse Inc., a circuit protection manufacturer in Chicago, did not know that anything above 50V is unsafe to work on or near. The majority (85%) of those who said they have been shocked by more than 220V while at work also said they were highly confident in their ability to recognize an electrical hazard. In all, 78% said they had been shocked before.
“We cannot say whether these workers were provided with low-quality training, or if they were given sufficient training but simply failed to retain what they learned,” said Mark Pollock, Littelfuse’s global product manager. “Regardless of the why, one thing is clear: their safety training failed.”
David Mullen, IBEW’s director of safety and health in Washington, D.C., said that workers who have been trained can still get shocked if they did not properly plan their work procedures before performing a job, or they failed to recognize all job hazards. Some shock incidents also happen because workers are being pushed for production on a job site.
Hoagland agreed, saying that outdated cultural norms are often the true culprit.
“Many times, workers are told in the field to not be scared to do anything because they’re ‘a professional’,” he said. “A journeyman’s card doesn’t make you invincible. But even getting slightly shocked numerous times can build up, and the cumulative effects can be detrimental to the body. We are learning more all the time about electrical shock sequelae [the consequence of previous injuries].”
Apprentices currently entering the field are learning the right way to identify, reduce and avoid shock hazards, but often when they get out into the field, there are influences from others who may not have been trained the same way, thereby creating confusion, Johnston said.
“Fortunately, the mindset of the younger generations to question authority when appropriate is really helping them to not be so easily influenced by senior electricians in the field,” he said.
Minimizing shock incidents
Changing outdated workplace cultures would be a good place to start, Hoagland said. Companies should not reward middle managers, project managers or foremen who bend safety rules to get their projects completed under time and under budget.
“If a worker were to ever get injured, permanently disabled or die from bending of the safety rules, then all of a sudden, those savings go away and the company’s reputation suffers,” he said. “The company will also have an increase in workers’ compensation insurance and it will be less desirable for future contracts.”
Employers also need to communicate that all workers are accountable for following electrical safety policies, Johnston said, as workers will be more likely to follow the rules if they know they will get in trouble for taking risks.
Policies should incorporate the guidelines outlined in the National Fire Protection Association’s 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. NFPA 70E helps avoid workplace injuries and fatalities due to shock, electrocution and arc flash, and assists in complying with OSHA 1910 Subpart S and OSHA 1926 Subpart K.
“NFPA 70E has evolved to clearly emphasize that elimination of the hazards—shock and arc flash—is the first priority in achieving compliance,” Johnston said.
To accomplish this, directing a worker to only perform the tasks they are trained and qualified for is essential, Mullen said. It’s important that everyone recognizes the hierarchy of risks and understands that working a task energized should not be the norm.
However, workers find themselves in environments where they are exposed to unseen electrical hazards, Brenner said. In the event of an arc flash fire or exposure to energized equipment, workers can be completely unprotected against forces that cause severe or fatal injuries.
“PPE is your last line of defense and will be the major factor in differentiating between an electrical event you walk away from and one that requires months of painful healing,” Brenner said. “Always ensure your PPE is appropriate for the hazard, worn as the outermost layer, worn correctly, maintained properly and removed from service when needed.”
Hoagland said proximity testers and passive voltage detectors can also be used, and ArcWear is working with companies in creating clothing that will sense a shock and make a call to the supervisor or EMS using a smartphone.
Engineering controls such as GFCIs are designed to remove the hazard at the source, before it comes in contact with the worker, Pollock said. GFCIs that also have built-in ground check capabilities “are a good place to start.”
NIOSH leads a national initiative called Prevention through Design (PtD), said Scott Earnest, director of NIOSH’s Office of Construction Safety and Health. PtD is the prevention and control of occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities, including electrical incidents, by “designing out”—minimizing from the initial or design stage—hazards and risks from a project, installation or piece of equipment.
Bringing the idea home—literally
Safety professionals can implement these measures to minimize shock incidents, but perhaps most importantly, they should personalize the risks to their workers.
“They may care more about following safety rules if they are reminded their family is counting on them,” Johnston said.