What ECs Can Teach About Safety

After 18 workers fell to their deaths from communication towers in 2008, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proclaimed tower climbing to be “the most dangerous job in America.” In 2013, at least 10 workers have died in falls from communication towers, and more have been seriously injured. As a result, the agency is exploring new approaches to policing the business.

If you think OSHA is overreacting to these double-digit death figures, consider that the nation’s tower-climbing workforce numbers far less than 10,000. The per-worker fatality rate in that industry is more than 10 times greater than for construction as a whole.

The spate of fatal falls that occurred during the erection, retrofitting or dismantling of towers in 2008 and again in 2013 appears to have resulted from the same conditions. In both years, major wireless carriers were rushing to expand their cellular networks as fast as possible, putting pressure on workers to bypass standard safety procedures. Deadly missteps often occurred because climbers were overly tired, poorly equipped or received little training before being sent up hundreds of feet. The majority of fatalities resulted from climbers not being tied off to safe anchorage points or relying on faulty personal protective equipment.

In addition to better enforcement of the worker safety rules already on the books, new regulations, based on best practices, are needed. If compliance is slowing workers down so much that they forego safety, someone needs to think of a better way to do the job. Empowering tower climbers as stakeholders with some control over their working conditions could alleviate the situation to a certain extent.

Enacting these procedures certainly improved safety in our own industry. There was a time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when electrical line work was the most dangerous occupation in America. The development of effective codes, standards and best practices while giving workers shared safety responsibility have brought us far from those days.

A major change factor: The National Fire Protection Association has been disseminating the National Electrical Code (NEC) ever since 1911. And, ever since, NECA contractors have played a leading role in keeping it up to date.

The NEC is revised every three years under consensus procedures that allow broad public review and participation by the people whose work it governs. It deals with so many topics that no single technical committee would have the expertise—or time—to write or revise the entire document. Instead, the NEC has been maintained by 19 different Code-Making Panels. A NECA-member contractor serves on every one of them. Michael Johnston, NECA’s executive director of standards and safety, chairs the NEC Correlating Committee, which is responsible for the document’s overall accuracy. Other organizations are represented in the Code-development process but none to the extent of NECA.

The 2014 NEC is now available. There are changes throughout the document. There also are entirely new articles dealing with low-voltage suspended ceiling power distribution systems; modular data centers; energy management systems; and fire-resistive cable systems. In the past, most revisions to the NEC were reactive to industry progress, but a new trend has emerged over the last two decades with the Code writers looking forward to new developments in evolving technologies and expansion of work in new technology-driven markets. The NEC is, first and foremost, all about the practical safeguarding of persons and property against the hazards rising from the uses of electricity, but it also offers guidance in areas of change.

Now that the 2014 NEC is out, I hope you will spend some time learning the new requirements and teaching your workers. I would also like to encourage all knowledgeable electrical contractors to help bring the Code home by interacting with the local governmental body responsible for its local adoption and enforcement. The Electrical Code Coalition can help in this regard.

The Electrical Code Coalition was formed in 1996 to promote electrical safety though qualified electrical inspections. Last summer, the coalition expanded its mission to promote widespread, uncompromised adoption and enforcement of the NEC and the use of certified electrical products. Its website—www.electricalcodecoalition.org—offers many resources, including a free Adoption Support Kit, which can be used by promulgating agencies and local electrical safety advocates to support NEC adoption.

Unified codes and standards enhance electrical safety by providing consistent requirements across widespread locales. Harmonization is becoming increasingly important as we look forward to the development of the smart grid and other energy solutions that impact multiple jurisdictions. Code knowledge equips electrical contractors as providers of solutions.

About the Author

Dennis F. Quebe

President, NECA
Dennis Quebe is a former president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and contributed the President's Desk column monthly. He took office in January 2012 and served a three-year term.

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