Nothing Shocking: Safety Pays

Proper attention to key activities and operations can protect workers and curtail injuries and deaths from electrical hazards

By Curtis L. Liscum  

Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of people who are evil, but because of those who don’t do anything about it.” Workplace electrical hazards are more often than not the result of not having an electrical safety program, or not doing anything about the program that is in place.

Year after year, electricity remains sixth among all causes of occupational fatalities. During the next seven years, it’s likely that more than 30,000 workers will suffer injuries and 2,000 more will die due to electrical hazards. Better electrical safety training and attention to electrical hazards could prevent most of these deaths and injuries.

An Employer’s Role

“Electrical hazards in the workplace pose a significant risk of injury or death to employees,” the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) noted when proposing regulatory updates governing electrical standards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed rules to reflect the most current practices and technology, many of which were not in place in 1981, which is the date of the latest electrical installation requirements.

While such regulatory changes can improve workplace safety standards, attention to safety is the necessary first step in any safety program. In more than one-third of workplace deaths and injuries due to electricity, there was no established safety program or set procedures, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The NIOSH study cites lack of employer policies and supervisory enforcement for a portion of these deaths and injuries.

Safety on the Line

The leading cause of fatal electrical incidents on the job is contact with power lines, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Construction workers, who make up about 7 percent of the U.S. workforce, suffer 44 percent of the electrical fatalities, according to NSC data.

Workers using ladders or scaffolds and those carrying aluminum siding, poles, fencing and even lumber should stay clear of power lines. Such contacts caused about 22 percent of the work related fatalities over the seven-year study period.

Eliminating power line contacts with cranes, boom trucks and dump trucks could reduce workplace electrical fatalities by another 17 percent annually. The best insulator is to stay at least 10 feet away from power lines.

After power lines, most workplace hazards result from contact with electrical systems and equipment. According to NIOSH, three related factors contribute to injuries and deaths during installation, maintenance, service, or repair work near electrical energy sources:

  • failure to completely de-energize, isolate, block and dissipate the hazardous energy source
  • failure to lockout and tagout energy control devices and isolation points after the hazardous energy source has been de-energized
  • failure to verify that the hazardous energy source was de-energized before beginning work.

Getting Personal

Of workers injured on the job, nearly 40 percent were victims of arc flash, or electrical burns. Both arc flash and arc blast, which refers to the extreme pressure buildup and explosion, cause death and injury.

Technology can eliminate part of arc hazards and a good safety program can further reduce incidents of arc flash and arc blast. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the next line of defense against electrical hazards. OSHA has developed a guide to help understand the types of PPE available, conduct a hazards assessment of the workplace, select appropriate PPE, and train employees in proper use. For copies of the guide, visit

Safety by Extension

One all-too-common safety hazard results from investing thousands of dollars in computers, then trying to save money by using inexpensive extension cords and surge suppressors. Extension cords are meant to be temporary. They are not designed for long-term use. When used incorrectly, their failure is inevitable. The only uncertainty is the time of their failure.

Even certifications are no guarantee of safety if workers do not use products as intended. Certification means that a listed electrical device will perform as the manufacturer has stated, but if users ask it to handle more than it’s rated capacity will allow, it will fail.

Firefighters and electrical safety experts recommend that a licensed electrician install permanent electrical fixtures and outlets. Simple precautions could result in fewer electrical fire deaths and injuries in both the home and workplace. Key electrical safety basics include the following:

  • Use electrical appliances, equipment and cords according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Make certain all electrical products, equipment and cords are approved by an independent testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratories, Canadian Standards Association, or ETL-SEMKO.
  • Make sure power strips, cords and surge suppressors are designed to handle the loads for their intended use. Avoid plugging too many items into one outlet and overloading circuits.

Check to make sure cords and plugs are in good condition, placed away from the flow of traffic, and do not run under carpets or furniture, which can cause them to overheat. Add protection by installing a new electrical safety device — an arc fault circuit interrupter — to detect and stop electrical arcs that can cause fires. Arcs are not detected by most breakers and fuses.

Avoiding Fault

Installing a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) in every workplace could prevent many of the about 400 electrocutions that occur each year. GFCIs are especially useful for cord-connected appliances and equipment used outdoors or near water.

GFCIs are electrical safety devices that trip electrical circuits when they detect ground faults or leakage currents. A person who becomes part of a path for leakage current will be severely shocked or electrocuted. A GFCI can be an electrical receptacle, circuit breaker or portable device.

Noting that occupational deaths associated with electrical hazards are a significant problem, OSHA is proposing the first overhaul of electrical safety workplace regulations in 25 years. Increased use of GFCIs in the workplace is among OSHA’s proposed requirements. OSHA has noted that contact with electrical current accounts for more than 5 percent of total occupational hazards annually.

A survey by the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) found that many GFCIs are never tested. Even among people who routinely tested their GFCIs, none said that they tested their units as recommended — at least monthly and after storms.

GFCIs are subject to wear and possible damage from power surges during electrical storms, and up to 10 percent of GFCIs in use might be damaged. ESFI recommends performing a monthly test to determine if GFCIs are functioning properly.

Among the estimated millions of GFCIs installed nationwide, many are the standard wall or receptacle-type GFCIs. To test a GFCI:

  • Push the reset button of the GFCI receptacle to prepare it for testing.
  • Plug a light into the GFCI and turn it on. The light now should be on.
  • Push the test button of the GFCI. The light should go off.
  • Push the reset button again. The light should again turn on.

If the light does not go out when the test button is pushed, the GFCI either is not working, or it has not been installed correctly.

If the reset button pops out during the test but the light does not go out, the GFCI might have been wired improperly. In this case, the GFCI might have been damaged and, as a result, does not offer shock protection. Contact a qualified electrician to check the GFCI and correct the problem.

This article was provided by the Electrical Safety Foundation International — — a non-profit foundation established by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to increase electrical safety awareness.

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  posted on 9/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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