The Safety "Contract" for Electrical Contractors

The $130 billion electrical construction industry1 is a major factor in the U.S. economy. It demands a major safety effort by everyone in the industry that not only meets standards, but also aims to reduce the terrible toll that electrical accidents can take on the workers that bring electrical power to buildings and communities across the U.S.

Electrical contractors, the magicians that bring light and power to buildings and keep electrical transmission lines humming, have a lot on their mind. In addition to managing large staffs of electricians and other workers, overseeing a complex web of equipment and work orders at job sites, and ensuring that all work is up to code, many are also entrepreneurs.

Contractors—whether they manage “inside” operations that provide electricity to structures or “outside” operations that build or maintain high-voltage power transmission and distribution lines—run day-to-day operations and bid on new work that keeps them in business.

But one responsibility is more important than all the others—keeping workers safe. It’s a daunting challenge because electrical hazards are literally everywhere on a worksite—whether that site involves new construction or maintenance, repair and overhaul of existing electrical systems. Thousands of things are just waiting to go wrong—sometimes with grave consequences. At a base level, contractors must provide a total safety solution for workers and equip them with the right safety clothing and safety-rated electrical tools.

Lethal Inexperience

Lack of experience in performing jobs safely can be lethal, a fact borne out in a study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health. It found that younger and less experienced workers were the most likely to be killed in electrical accidents.2

NIOSH analyzed 224 fatal electrocutions between 1982 and 1994, which accounted for about 7 percent of all workplace deaths. It found that 64 percent of the victims were under 35, and 99 percent of all victims were men. Also, 41 percent of the victims had been on the job for less a year. Construction workers had the highest percentage of electrocutions, at 40 percent. NIOSH found five main causes for the fatalities:

  • Direct contact with an energized powerline (28 percent);
  • Direct contact with energized equipment ( 21 percent);
  • Boomed-vehicle contact with an energized power line (18 percent);
  • Improperly installed or damaged equipment (17 percent); and
  • Conductive equipment contact with an energized powerline (16 percent).

Even if they are not fatal, the consequences of electrical accidents can be grim. Electricity causes a variety of burns, including surface burns from electrical current entering and exiting the body, internal tissue burns caused by current flowing through internal organs and surface burns caused by exposure to an arc flash.3

Electrical injuries are often more severe than they appear. Injury occurs not only at the contact site, but also along the path of the electrical circuit and where it exits the body.4 As a result, extensive muscle damage frequently occurs. These deep-tissue injuries cause severe swelling that can require a deep incision—extending from the hand to the shoulder—to relieve pressure, reduce swelling and save remaining, healthy tissue. Victims often require extensive dead skin removal to prevent massive infections. After treatment, major scars can interfere with joint function.4

Electric arc flashes can produce some of the worst electrical injuries. They produce intense heat (up to 35,000° F) and explosions with very strong air pressure. All known materials are vaporized at this temperature. Arcs spray droplets of molten metal at high speeds, and blast shrapnel can penetrate the body.5

 

Shocking Situations

While all electrical accidents should be prevented, their effects range from mild to fatal, depending on how much electricity the victim is exposed to. The following effects show the range of electrical injuries and the amperages that cause them.3

  • Threshold of perception: 1 mA for men, 0.7 mA for women;
  • Painful shock: 9 mA for men, 6 mA for women;
  • Victim cannot let go of wire or device: 10 mA (this and rest of effects are the same for men and women);
  • Ventricular fibrillation: 100 mA shock for 3 seconds or 200 mA shock for 1 second;
  • Heart failure: 500 mA;
  • Organ burn and cellular breakdown: 1,500 mA.

The Power of Prevention

Like the three main rules in selling real estate (location, location and location), the three main rules in electrical safety are prevention, prevention and prevention.

    Electrical contractors must ask themselves every day if:
  • Employees are provided with and are using personal protective equipment;
  • There are effective lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedures in place;
  • Employees are properly trained in safe work practices;
  • Portable electrical tools are grounded or double insulated;
  • Electrical boxes and fittings have approved covers; and
  • Ground fault circuit interrupters and/or an assured equipment grounding program are in place.4

These issues can be addressed in an organized, disciplined way with an Injury and Illness Prevention Program, of which a key part is electrical safety. An IIPP is usually required for electrical contractors, either by OSHA standards or state standards.

While the costs of implementing IIPPs are not inconsequential, they can be more than offset by preventing the substantial and often unpredictable costs of accidents.

    Those costs include:
  • Productive time lost by an injured employee;
  • Productive time lost by employees and supervisors attending to the accident victim;
  • Cleanup and startup of operations interrupted by the accident;
  • Time required to hire or to retrain staff to replace the injured worker until his return;
  • Time and cost for repair or replacement of damaged equipment and materials;
  • Cost of continuing all or part of the employee’s wages, in addition to compensation;
  • Reduced morale among employees, and perhaps lower efficiency;
  • Increased workers’ compensation insurance rates; and
  • Cost of completing paperwork generated by the incident.6

Electrical contractors setting up and maintaining IIPPs must make sure they comply with all applicable regulations. OSHA provides a useful guide to the myriad regulations that affect electrical contractors.7 Electrical hazards are addressed in specific standards for recordkeeping in general industry, shipyard employment, marine terminals and the construction industry.

Twenty-five states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands have OSHA-approved state plans that cover workplace safety for electrical contractors and other employers. These states and territories have adopted their own job safety and health standards and enforcement policies, but are required to set standards that are “at least as effective as” comparable federal standards. For the most part, these states’ standards are identical to those of OSHA. However, some states have adopted different standards applicable to this topic or may have different enforcement policies. States have the option to promulgate standards covering hazards not addressed by federal standards. 8

It’s important to note that OSHA regularly updates its electrical safety standards. For example, as of 2013, OSHA was in the final stage on rules covering Electric Power Transmission and Distribution; Electrical Protective Equipment (RIN: 1218-AB67). The construction industry standard addressing the safety of workers during the construction of electric power transmission and distribution lines was nearly 40 years old prior to this revision. The rules were expected to be more stringent than the ones they replace.9

Reading the Roadmap

While OSHA or the states set regulations, the roadmap of how to comply with the regulations is the National Fire Protection Agency’s (NFPA) 70E standard, which addresses electrical-safety work practices and procedures. The standard is applicable to employees working on or near exposed and energized electrical conductors or circuit parts.

Although not formally adopted by OSHA, NFPA 70E is often the defacto standard referenced in its citations. It is also a useful guide to implementing specific policies. For example, NFPA 70E 2012 Ch. 1, Section 130, specifies which workers can work within certain boundaries based on distance from a live electrical circuit. They include “approach, restricted and prohibited” boundaries.

Flame Fighters

The use of PPE—such as flame-resistant clothing that meets the performance requirements of ASTM F1506 when exposure to electric arc flash is possible—is a key part of any electrical safety program.

Flame-retardant clothing is assigned an Arc Thermal Performance Value (ATPV) rating by the manufacturer. The ATPV value represents the amount of incident energy that would cause the onset of second-degree burns. It also signifies the amount of protection the clothing provides when an electrical arc comes in contact with the fabric.

Most people working with electricity only require clothing that meets category 1 or 2 protection characteristics under NFPA 70E. Tighter safety standards are aimed at workers in category 3 or 4 hazard situations. Their clothing must meet ATPV rating minimums throughout the life of the garment through several cleanings. To meet OSHA regulations and NFPA 70E, the label on the garment must contain a tracking ID number, meet ASTM spec F1506, name of manufacturer, size and care instructions, ATPV rating and must meet ASTM spec F1506.

Tool Time

Insulated tools are another important category of rated safety gear. Insulated hand tools were part of OSHA's 1990 guidelines for workplace electrical safety and can help prevent worker fatalities when used near energized circuits. Manufacturers individually test and certify insulated tool sets for specific working conditions. Generally, the maximum rated voltage for insulated tools is 1,000 volts AC and 1,500 volts DC.

Plugging In to Safety

It would seem that the powerful threat of electrical accidents would be enough to make workers follow safe practices. But, in reality, it is not enough. Only the implementation of comprehensive electrical safety programs, combined with the right safety equipment, can set the stage for electrical workers to perform their work safely and efficiently.

Sources:

  1. National Electrical Contractors Association
  2. Worker Deaths by Electrocution: A Summary of National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Surveillance and Investigative Findings, NIOSH Publication No. 98-131:
  3. Electrical Safety in the Workplace (NFPA 70E) PowerPoint Training Presentation:
  4. Independent Electrical Contractors Toolbox Talks Series:
  5. “Practical Solution Guide to Arc Flash Hazards,” by Chet Davis, P.E.; Conrad St. Pierre; David Castor, P.E.; Robert Luo, PhD; and Satish Shrestha:
  6. OSHA White Paper:
  7. OSHA Guide to Electrical Contractor Compliance:
  8. OSHA-Approved State Plans:
  9. Seton Identification Products: