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Electrical Safety In The Workplace

Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, released a new version of the agency’s Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law! poster. Most people who have entered a work environment would recognize this poster, which summarizes an employee’s right to a safe workplace and the employer’s legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

OSHA’s responsibility is to ensure that employees have a voice in the workplace and protection from hazardous conditions, such as electrical hazards. The organization provides safety training to minimize the occurrence of electrical and other hazards in the workplace. Whether at home, on a job, or in public places, electricity has become an essential element of modern life. Consequently, nowhere is the need for workers’ protection, and that of the public, more apparent than the area of electrical safety.

The commonality of electricity as a source of power makes it easy for most people to accept it without much thought to the possible hazards. However, on OSHA’s list of the 10 most common work hazard complaints received by the agency, electricity exposes employees to electric shock, burns, fires and explosions.

Many people work with electricity directly, including electricians, engineers, linesmen and employees who wire circuit assemblies, or cable harnesses. Office workers and a host of other employees must also work with electricity or in close proximity to the power source indirectly. Because electricity represents such a familiar part of our everyday existence, many people do not give it the respect it deserves.

An electrical shock occurs when the human body, a well-known conductor of electricity, comes into direct contact with an electrically energized part, and simultaneously touches another conductive surface, which has a different electrical potential. The electrical current flows into the body at one contact point, passes through the body, and exits at the other contact point or ground. Even at low levels, electrical current that enters the body can cause direct or indirect injuries. Involuntary muscular reactions, including collisions and falls, from the electric shock can cause bruises, bone fractures and even death.

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Data compiled by the Electrical Safety Foundation International, or ESFI, shows that fatalities from electrical accidents dropped by one-third from 2006-2010. The a non-profit ESFI, which has the mission of promoting electrical safety in the workplace and at home, receives funding from electrical distributors, retailers, manufacturers, trade and labor associations and other parties within the electrical industry.

The organization uses these funds to review statistical data on occupational electrical injuries and fatalities to help decision-makers better allocate safety resources for maximum impact. It looks at the total number of electrical injuries and fatalities, the industries and occupations in which the incidents occurred, and the rates of electrical injury and fatality according to industry.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International compiled the fatality and injury report from data made available through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). From 2003 through 2010, 42,882 occupational fatalities occurred from all causes. According to the BLS, there were 1,738 fatalities due to contact with electricity. Here are the numbers for the top five industries:

  • Construction: 849
  • Professional and business services: 208
  • Trade, transportation, and utilities: 182
  • Natural resources and mining: 154
  • Manufacturing: 137

The data also demonstrates that only five occupations in the construction trades — electricians, carpenters, roofers, painters and construction laborers experienced more than 32% of all electrical fatalities, followed by electrical power line installers and repairers at almost 8%, and tree trimmers at nearly 5%. The data shows that between 2003 and 2010, electrical fatalities comprised about 4% of all occupational fatalities each year. The leading fatal injury causes of death include contact with overhead power lines, wiring, transformers and other electrical components, in addition to contact with electric current from tools, machines, light fixtures and appliances.

Every year between 2003 in 2010, utility companies, mining, construction and agriculture activities returned electrical fatality rates in excess of the private industry rate. Utility and construction workers also experienced nonfatal electrical injury rates in excess of the private industry rate each year between 2003 and 2010.

OSHA Safety Standards for Electricians

With the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), Congress created OSHA — the body charged with the mission of ensuring healthy and safe working conditions for working men and women. The agency was created because of the government’s investigation into a rising number of injuries and fatalities in the workplace during that time.

Generally, OSHA safety regulations apply to all employers and employees in the United States and most territories.

As a federal standard, enforceable under federal law, OSHA regulations found under Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations address safety issues in the workplace — everything from scaffolding to ergonomics, job-related disease and construction. Title 29 contains two separate subparts of regulations, each divided into four categories, which directly address electrical safety.

Part 1910, Subpart S – General Industry, Electrical: Addresses electrical safety requirements that are necessary for the protection of employees in their workplaces:

    • 1910.301(a)   Design safety standards for electrical systems
    • 1910.301(b)   Safety-related work practices
    • 1910.301(c)   Safety-related maintenance requirements
    • 1910.301(d)   Safety requirements for special equipment

·         Part 1926, Subpart K – Construction Industry, Electrical- Addresses electrical safety requirements  necessary to protect employees involved in construction work:

    • 1926.400(a)   Installation safety requirements
    • 1926.400(b)   Safety-related work practices
    • 1926.400(c)   Safety-related maintenance and environmental considerations
    • 1926.400(d)   Safety requirements for special equipment

Intentionally designed to cover only the parts of any electrical system that the employee will use or have close contact with, the OSHA electrical standards require that the expose and/or the operating elements of any installation meet specified safety characteristics. The types of installations include lighting equipment, motors, machines, appliances, switches, controls and enclosures.

OSHA’s Job Safety and Health: It’s the Law! poster, which an employer must place in an easily noticeable location in the workplace, serves as a constant reminder to both employers and employees of the workers’ right to a safe workplace environment and other privileges. These privileges include:

  • The right to raise a safety/health concern with the employer or OSHA.
  • Report a work-related injury or illness, without fear of retaliation.
  • Receive information and training on job hazards and hazardous substances in your workplace.
  • Request an OSHA inspection of your workplace for unsafe conditions.
  • The right to keeping your name confidential.
  • Employees have the right to have a representative contact OSHA on their behalf.
  • Participate in an OSHA inspection and speak in private to the inspector.
  • File a complaint with OSHA within 30 days for retaliation.
  • See any OSHA citations issued to your employer.
  • View copies of your medical records, tests that measure workplace hazards and injury/illness logs.

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The poster also summarizes what the employer must do to comply with the law: Employers must provide a workplace free from known hazards and comply with relevant OSHA standards. The employer must also report to OSHA all work-related fatalities within 8 hours, and any amputations, inpatient hospitalizations and losses of an eye within 24 hours. For awareness and educational purposes, employers must make a prominent display of this poster in the workplace, as well as train all workers in a language and vocabulary they can understand. OSHA citations must be posted at or near the place of an alleged violation.

OSHA Safety Training and Inspections

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According to OSHA, language barriers contribute to 25 percent of job-related accidents. OSHA strongly encourages employers to take advantage of workers innate abilities to learn, understand and retain information when it’s taught to them in their native language. The learner’s comprehension of safety training concepts increases because the person gives total attention to the content without the need to convert the lesson into their first language mentally before proceeding. The ability to focus on the subject matter and not translate and interpret the material has a direct impact on productivity, revenue and injury and fatalities, especially in construction and for electrical workers.

Employers typically divided up their training plans into two distinct categories. For example, the term qualified worker describes an employee who is trained and authorized to perform work on electrical equipment and components, while the term unqualified worker is a designation for an employee who has not been trained or authorized to perform electrical work.

In 2010, OSHA announced an initiative that directed field inspectors to observe whether employers provided employees safety training in a language that the workers understood. Although the OSH Act does not mandate employers to provide safety training in a language besides English, companies that fail to provide the proper training to their employees can receive citations and penalties. OSHA also requires employers include temporary workers in safety trainings.
OSHA has jurisdiction over private sector employees, but excludes self-employed individuals, family farm workers and government workers, except in State Plan jurisdictions (states). In addition, the agency approves and monitors 27 State Plan states, which cover the private and public sector workplace. OSHA also assists other federal agency programs.

If a worker believes that an employer is not following OSHA standards or that the workplace has serious hazards, the person may file a complaint with OSHA and request an inspection of the workplace. The agency provides a number of ways for employees to file a complaint, including by phone, an online complaint form and by mail or fax. All contact with the agency remains confidential.

During the course of investigating accusations of imminent danger, catastrophes and fatalities, and worker complaints and referrals, the agency conducts inspections without advance notice. Besides on-site inspections, OSHA also conducts phone/fax investigations, targeted inspections for high injury/illness rates and severe violators, and follow-up inspections.

OSHA goes beyond merely enforcement of the regulations to provide training, outreach, education and assistance to employers to help them meet their obligation to provide a safe work environment. Many employers have refresher training for new equipment, technology and employee noncompliance. Employers must maintain documentation of training and experience requirements for the job performed.

Approved Industry Electrical Codes and Safety

The construction and installation of all systems require procedures that minimize electrical dangers to people in the workplace. OSHA determines its electrical standards on the National Fire Protection Association’s protocol NFPA 70E Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces and the NFPA 70 National Electrical Code (NEC).

NFPA 70E: The Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, or NFPA 70E, is a registered trademark of the NFPA and covers the electrical safety requirements for employee workplaces. The NFPA, which began in 1976 as a source to assist OSHA, addresses the practical installation, operation, maintenance and demolition of electric conductors, electric equipment, signaling and communications conductors and equipment, and raceways for the following uses:

    • Public and private buildings, mobile homes and other structures
    • Yards, carnivals, parking lot and substations
    • Installation of conductors and equipment that connect to electricity power supply
    • Electrical utility installations for office buildings, recreational buildings, warehouses, machine shops and garages that are not an integral part of a generating plant, substation or control center

NFPA 70E also includes the Electrical Energized Work Practices, which is designed to incorporate standards to help avoid or minimize damage from arch flash.

National Electrical Code (NEC): As a part of the National Fire Codes series, the National Electrical Code, or NFPA 70, describes a United States standard for the safe installation of electrical wiring and equipment. First introduced in 1897, it receives an update and is published every three years. The NEC contains the requirements for safe electrical installations combined into a single, standardized source.

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The NEC may not be the law, but many states, counties, local municipalities and international jurisdictions use the codes. According to the NEC rules, the authority having jurisdiction, or AHJ, inspects for compliance with the minimum electrical standards as developed by the NFPA’s Committee on the National Electrical Code. This committee consists of 19 code-making panels and a technical correlating committee. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approves the NEC as the national standard known as ANSI/NFPA 70.

Most OSHA regulations have general language rather than specific requirements. The NEC and NFPA 70E put forth specific requirements for electrical safety. The standards issued by the two bodies can have either a direct or an indirect relationship, but many standards use the same language.

OSHA concerns itself with the standards that directly apply to workers safety, and are least likely to change with updates. With an eye towards performance, OSHA’s electrical standards generally provide guidance on what needs to be done. Electricians can refer to the NEC to find specific information on how to achieve the required performance.

Interested in Learning More?

OSHA safety training prepares electrical workers and other employees on the dangers of working around electrical devices, machinery and equipment in a workplace setting. Employees can learn how to recognize electrical dangers and how to avoid accidents and injuries through the electrical safety and safety training courses provided at Technical Skills Development.