Zeroing in on Workplace Safety

Risk is a part of life, but it’s more immediate and apparent in some lives—including those spent in the construction industry. Every construction project starts with some uncertainties. Will anything prevent us from accomplishing what we promised? Will we make a reasonable profit? What if something bad happens during the construction process, such as a dispute that shuts down the project and leads to litigation? Even worse, what if someone gets hurt on the job?

As the owner of a contracting company, I create risk by getting projects for us to work on, which, in effect, exposes us to all of these potential worries and then some. It is the job of our project managers, supervisors and safety professionals to manage those risks so that the bad things don’t happen, we all get paid adequately, the customer is happy, and everyone goes home safe and sound at the end of the day. However, achieving the latter is actually everybody’s job-—employers, employees and customers, too.

Maintaining job site safety is an important task because an accident that leaves someone injured or killed is the worst of all possible bad things that could happen on a project. First, obviously, there’s the toll in human suffering, and I believe we all have a duty to try with the full extent of our capabilities to prevent others from experiencing unnecessary pain and loss.

Also consider that there are few events that can disrupt a project faster than a job site accident, and the monetary costs can be staggering. The National Safety Council estimates that the average total expense related to a nonfatal injury incurred on the job is close to $200,000. That figure includes an average of about $60,000 for direct costs (emergency room and doctor visits, medical bills, medicines and rehabilitation), with indirect costs accounting for the bulk. Indirect costs include such things as administrative time dealing with the injury and medical care, increased insurance premiums, and hiring and training another person to replace the affected worker. The costs go up exponentially if a seriously incapacitating injury or fatality is involved or if a lawsuit ensues.

And don’t forget all those harder-to-estimate costs: damage to your company’s reputation that can cost you current and potential customers, the trauma and loss of confidence the injured person’s co-workers suffer, unwanted media attention, and other things you (probably) wouldn’t wish on your most irritating competitor.

The very first National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Safety Professionals Conference (NSPC) covered all of these points. However, the theme throughout NSPC 2011 (held in May) was the importance of striving for a zero-energy work environment through a shared-responsibility approach to safety, as expressed in NECA’s standing national policy on “Safety Programs and Safe Workers.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) prohibits work on energized electrical equipment unless the task is not feasible in a de-energized state (such as for testing or troubleshooting) or de-energizing would actually increase hazards. The how-tos come from NFPA 70E, the Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, which covers job planning and hazard analysis, de-energizing and lockout/tagout procedures, arc flash prevention, and personal protective equipment.

That is why I have repeatedly urged my fellow electrical contractors to develop a thorough understanding of NFPA 70E and make compliance part of your company’s culture and outreach to customers. There must be clear communication between the front office and the front lines on this issue.

A new edition of this standard has been approved for 2012, so now is the time to invest in some worker training on the changes. Believe me, when you empower your work force to implement the best practices related to safety in the workplace, you have made a profitable investment in the long-term success of your company.

And don’t forget that “shared responsibility” for zero-energy workplaces applies to customers, too. It is important to educate owners about the risk and possible losses they face by not coordinating scheduled outages, so work at their premises may be performed safely. If a customer absolutely refuses to abide by the common-sense requirements of NFPA 70E, that’s a customer you are better without.

No project payment can be high enough to justify cutting corners on safety. Lives, and livelihoods, are at stake.

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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