Understanding the Unseen

The work electrical contractors do every day poses some obvious, inherent safety risks. After all, few jobs are riskier than those involving live electrical wires. However, electrical contractors also face a number of hidden hazards that, over time, could be every bit as deadly as arcing current. Understanding potential dangers in the environment of a construction site could be as critical to your long-term health as a good pair of insulated work gloves.

Know your environment

Environmental building hazards range from the well-publicized to the lesser known. For example, building professionals have long known about the lung cancer risks posed by asbestos. And, because the material was used to manufacture everything from pipe insulation to floor tile, many have become accustomed to testing existing materials and taking needed precautions to limit their asbestos exposure.

Lesser known, however, might be the risk posed by the concrete dust created when such walls are drilled or demolished. A frequent presence in renovation projects, concrete dust can have serious health consequences over time, especially when it is inhaled. Concrete dust contains silica, and breathing too much silica can lead to lung disease.

“That could pose some problems for electrical contractors in those locations,” said Jerry Rivera, National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) safety director. “It’s a known carcinogen. If an employee is exposed for a substantial period, they could face cancer down the road.”

Similarly, broken compact fluorescent lamps pose mercury hazards. Energy--efficiency upgrades are becoming an important part of an electrical contractors’ workload, with lighting improvements usually at the top of the list. Workers may be handling large numbers of such tubes. The lamps are safe when intact, but can release dangerous mercury if broken.

“They need to be managed with care,” said Joe O’Connor, president of Waverly, Pa.-based Intec, a safety training and consulting firm. “Electrical contractors need to make sure that, if they drop a box of lamps, they are very careful about how they handle it.”

Should the lamps break, O’Connor said, workers need to take care not to stir up the resulting dust. The site should be cleaned using a shop vacuum equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter and a sealed container. Procedures also need to be in place for safely emptying that container and disposing of the resulting hazardous waste.

Know the rules

Such procedures are a big part of environmental safety on a job site. Both electrical contractors and the general contractors for whom they may be working bear responsibility for keeping their employees safe, according to Roger Brauer, executive director of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. This organization, based in Savoy, Ill., manages the certification of Certified Safety Professionals (CSPs) and Construction Health and Safety Technologists (CHSTs), who have become important members of many building teams.

A safety professional may be someone who works only on safety issues, or he or she may be an electrician or other building professional who has received specific safety training. Having a trained safety professional on-site, regardless of the individual’s background, may be a requirement in some larger projects.

“For a site with a very large work force, being on-site at all times may be necessary,” Brauer said. “The size and complexity-—in terms of hazards, especially—are often used to define the need for a full-time safety person.”

Know what you’re working with

Safety also needs to be a part of the project-planning process, O’Connor said. This should begin with a preconstruction/demolition review of current site conditions, along with an understanding of the work you will be doing there and the products you will be using. He said manufacturer safety data sheets (MSDS) are an important resource because they provide extensive information on possible hazards and remediation.

“Do an inventory,” O’Connor said. “Try to find out what you’re getting into before you begin.”

He suggested contractors consider what substances and equipment will be used, as well as potential exposure risks, early on.

Rivera emphasized the importance of MSDS information to everyone on the job site.

“It’s a great source of information,” he said. “Electrical contractors should always verify the MSDS and communicate the known hazards, and how to counter the hazards, to employees.”

In larger jobs involving a number of different construction disciplines, this kind of information is even more important, O’Connor said. Just as building systems can interact or interfere with each other, the products and processes used by different trades can combine in dangerous ways.

“The regulations require that, at some point, the general contractor and the subcontractors have to sit down and exchange their MSDS,” he said. “Let’s say I’m bringing ammonia, and you’re bringing a bottle of bleach. We need to take a look at that and make sure we’re storing our chemicals in different locations.”

Rivera agreed with O’Connor’s recommendations and emphasized the importance of communicating with the general contractor to ensure working conditions remain safe for the electrical contractor’s employees. The overall project plan, beyond just the products different trades might be using, also must be a part of this conversation, he said.

“The most important source of information is the general contractor,” Rivera said. “As employers, we need to ask the questions.”

These questions include an examination into when various trades might be working in the same space. Such advance planning could prevent dangerous scenarios that otherwise might be overlooked, Rivera said. He offered the example of a mechanical tradesman welding in a building shaft, while an electrical worker is installing wiring several floors above; this creates a potentially hazardous situation. In this case, the contractor’s employee could be exposed to noxious, and possibly deadly, welding fumes.

“It’s important to consider not just our scope of work, but what others are doing around us,” Rivera said. “Each one of those trades has their own risks associated with them.”

Potential environmental risks and contractor responsibilities also can extend to the broader community in which a project is located. Not only must contractors protect their employees against dangerous exposures, they also must ensure their work doesn’t endanger residents or workers around the project. For example, lead and asbestos dust cannot simply be vented outdoors and ignored; these materials must be captured and handled as toxic waste.

Baseline regulatory requirements for these practices begin at the federal level but can be superseded by state and local laws. Contractors may not be aware of all their responsibilities if they only rely on federal guidelines.

“I believe a lot of [contractors] are ignorant of the regulations or the requirements,” O’Connor said, adding that enforcement can be a haphazard affair. “Because a construction site is temporary, there’s basically no evidence of what went on.”

Know the signs of trouble

Given construction’s transient nature, monitoring environmental safety should become a part of every electrical contractor’s job, not just the managers. Hazards may be invisible, so all workers must remain aware of their surroundings and watch out for coworkers who may ignore signs of potentially serious problems instead of seeking help.

“I think there’s an underlying culture; these are tough guys,” Rivera said, noting that symptoms could include strange behavior or multiple workers breaking out in rashes. “The safety professional has to be made aware of that; you’ve got to keep your eyes open.”

And this need for contractor team members to watch out for each other raises an even larger issue for Rivera: the need for all those on a job site to make safety a personal responsibility. Even if a project has a full-time safety professional on-site, that doesn’t mean others on the job can let down their guard.

“Safety is everybody’s responsibility,” Rivera said. “Anybody in an organization can raise their hand, and the employer has a responsibility to conduct an assessment. The only way a safety professional works is with the cooperation of management and employees.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer
Chuck Ross is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility bus...

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