Flatlining: The Decline in Electrical Fatalities Has Nearly Leveled

0519 PQ
Image credit: esfi.org

According to the NFPA’s Trends and Patterns of U.S. Fire Loss report in 2017, “The fire death rate per million population fell 70% from 34.4 in 1977 to 10.2 in 2015.” The decline is largely attributed to the increased presence of smoke detectors, which the law requires in most residential dwellings in the country, as well as a reduction in smoking by the general population. A study by epidemiologists from University of California, Davis, reported, “Two-thirds of all U.S. reductions in fire fatalities related to smoking from 1984 to 1995 were attributed to reductions in cigarette consumption.” Two good actions; two great results.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates approximately 350 electrical-related fatalities occur each year. Electrical workers suffer the highest number of electrocutions per year. Though electricity is the fourth-leading cause of death in the construction industry, the trend has decreased steadily, just like fire fatalities. While one study presents the trend as a consistent downward slope, a closer analysis of the data reveals it’s been variable, as the figure (above) shows.

Examining a three-year sliding average of the data uncovers that something in 2007 caused a distinct beginning to the decline in construction worker electrical fatalities. Though NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety, has been published and revised for 40 years, its usage took a huge step forward in 2007 when changes were made to Subpart S of 29 CFR Part 1910 that, according to OSHA, “drew heavily from the 2000 edition of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces (NFPA 70E) and the 2002 edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC).”

While the law does not require NFPA 70E training (except for Department of Energy contractors), OSHA federal regulations pertaining to electrical safety training and electrical safety in the workplace are law. Failure to meet these regulations can result in citations, fines and penalties. Most important, it has a direct correlation to the decrease in deaths and injuries from electrical accidents.

So why has this decline nearly leveled over the past five years? Workers following safety-related work practice requirements, limiting the approach, learning the arc flash concept, and wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE) has a significant effect on injury and death rates. But why haven’t these practices continued to reduce the deaths and injuries? Making it the employer’s duty to create an electrical safety program and making it enforced practice within companies should have had a greater effect than waiting for an incident that called OSHA in to penalize the company.

OSHA recognizes that the most common injuries happen more frequently as the scope of work the typical EC performs and the age of the workforce increases. While regulations aren’t going to decrease anyone’s age, perhaps the 2018 edition of NFPA 70E has addressed this with additional focus on risk assessment and including factors such as human error in the assessment.

Raising awareness about the factors that lead to potentially dangerous situations before engaging in that work will also reduce instance of injury and death, especially when ECs are in new situations as a result of expanding scopes of work. Article 105.4 now explicitly states, “Hazard elimination shall be the first priority in the implementation of safety-related work practices.” Requiring risk assessments for shock and arc flash to be performed by identifying the hazard, estimating the likelihood of occurrence of injury or damage to health and the potential severity of injury or damage to health, and determining if additional protective measures are required to prevent injury or death, including the use of PPE, seems to make it a no-brainer. Only those without a brain (or driven by greed) would disregard that information and carry out the task in an unsafe manner.

Why do people still choose not to follow lockout/tagout procedures or wear PPE? While doing research a few years ago with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I found falls were a leading reason for deaths in electrical incidents. I knew electrical workers as a group couldn’t be significantly more clumsy than the general population, so further digging revealed the statistic was skewed by those who were replacing overhead lighting fixtures on live circuits without proper PPE while on a ladder. A preventable electrical shock caused them to fall from the ladder, resulting in injuries and deaths.

We need to dig deeper to get that curve of preventable deaths trending back down toward zero. When you see someone being unsafe, ask them why and ask them if it’s worth the risk. Are they even aware of the risk? That pause, that awareness, might just prevent a tragedy.

About the Author

Richard P. Bingham

Power Quality Columnist

Richard P. Bingham, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.248.4393.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.