Zeroing in on Electrical Safety in the Workplace

The standard on "control of hazardous energy" is fourth on the list of the Top 10 most frequently cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards and third on the list of citations that drew the highest penalties. There’s a good reason OSHA focuses so intensely on electricity: It can be a killer.

In an average year, 350 workers in the United States—more than 200 of them in the construction industry—lose their lives to electrical hazards on the job. Nationwide, electricity ranks fifth among all causes of occupational fatalities.

Of course, not all electrical incidents in the workplace result in death. But, far too often, they result in severe burns, scarring and tissue death that lead to a life of pain and lost mobility.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) calculates that more than 46,000 workers were injured from on-the-job electrical hazards over the past 10 years. Last year, the figure was just over 4,000 across all industries, with about 2,540 such injuries reported for the construction industry.

“During the work day, a worker is hurt every 30 minutes so severely from electricity that it requires time off the job,” according to ESFI.

As bad as that sounds, the statistics actually are improving. In the 1990s, electricity ranked second among all causes of occupational fatalities. Therefore, the increased emphasis on controlling electrical hazards and the advances in protective technologies and techniques that have arisen in recent years are working. But we can and must do better.

“Zero injuries” is an achievable goal on every project. The first step is making “zero-energy work environments” the norm. That means following OSHA’s requirement that electrical equipment not be worked on while energized unless the task to be performed is not feasible in a de-energized state or de-energizing actually would increase hazards.

While OSHA writes the rules, the how-tos come from the National Fire Protection Association’s 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. This standard covers job planning and hazard analysis, de-energizing and lockout/tagout procedures, arc flash prevention, and personal protective equipment. The National Electrical Contractors Association offers several resources to assist electrical contractors in complying with NFPA 70E. The NECA Notes section of this magazine discusses some of them, so I won’t discuss them here.

However, I do want to express my opinion about what I often hear as a reason for performing “hot work” in industrial facilities and the like: “The customer won’t allow downtime.” Well, in most cases, that’s a lousy excuse.

Remember that NFPA 70E allows work on energized circuits only when de-energizing would be unsafe or infeasible, not merely inconvenient to the customer. In fact, the standard requires that no hot work (other than testing, troubleshooting or voltage measuring) be performed until an “Energized Work Permit” is signed by both the contractor and the customer.

Such permits must contain a thorough justification for working live, specifics of how the work will be conducted, and detailed information about the shock and flash hazards involved and precisely what safety-related work practices and personal protective equipment will be used. They also require documentation and follow-ups.

Completing the permit helps everyone involved think through the process, and requiring the customer’s signature helps reinforce the primary requirement to work de-energized. When they are approached with a detailed work permit to sign, most customers will agree to an acceptable way to de-energize the equipment after all.

But, if a customer refuses to abide by NFPA 70E requirements, that’s a customer you can do without. No project payment can be high enough to justify cutting corners on safety. If you do and a death or injury results, you could face severe criminal and civil penalties, catastrophic medical costs and insurance premium increases, loss of your reputation, and loss of your livelihood. And that’s nothing compared to the guilt that will (or should) haunt you if your actions, or inactions, harm any human being.

In September, NECA’s Board of Governors will vote on a national standing policy promoting zero-energy work environments as the normal and best practice. In the meantime, I urge you to develop a thorough understanding of NFPA 70E and make compliance part of your company’s culture and outreach to customers. At the end of the day, let’s make sure everyone gets home safely.

About the Author

Rex A. Ferry

NECA President
Rex Ferry was president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) from 2009 through 2011 and contributed the President's Desk column monthly.

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