Electrical Safety By the Book

Understanding regulatory requirements designed to enhance safety can help managers keep technicians avoid workplace injuries

By Michael Newbury  

Safety in the workplace is critically important, today more than ever. To protect front-line maintenance technicians from electrical hazards that include shock, arc blasts and explosions, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) developed Standard 70E to address electrical system operation, maintenance and repair.

NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace, is a national consensus safety standard to assist the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in preparing electrical safety standards. While the American National Standard Institute has approved NFPA 70E, OSHA has not incorporated it into the Code of Federal Regulations. For more on the document’s background, see the accompanying article on this page.

By understanding the requirements of NFPA 70E and taking actions it calls for, maintenance and engineering managers can go a long way in protecting workers and preventing injuries.

Workplace Hazards

In recent years, NFPA 70E has received greater attention from facilities due to the increased code attention on arc fault hazards, as well as the fact that it is cited in workplace electrical accident incidents.

NFPA 70E is not a substitute for the NEC, which is an electrical installation standard only. Instead, 70E is an instruction manual for ways to comply with OSHA regulations pertaining to assessing electrical hazards and selecting appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for electrical hazards.

Since some OSHA regulations are stated in general terms, maintenance and engineering managers must determine compliance strategies. Complying with NFPA 70E is not mandatory, but OSHA can use this standard to identify negligence if organizations do not meet certain electrical safety standards. As a result, NFPA 70E is raising awareness of workplace safety and prompting more facilities to take notice.

Arc flash and shock are two common workplace hazards that are referenced in Chapter 1, Safety-Related Work Practices, of NFPA 70E. Arc flash is a dangerous condition associated with the release of energy caused by an electric arc. Due to the significant number of electricians that have been seriously burned or killed by accidental electrical arc flash while working on energized equipment, the National Electrical Code (NEC) now addresses arc flash.

NFPA 70-NEC Section 110.16 on flash protection requires the field labeling of switchboards, panel boards, control panels, and motor control centers that are likely to require examination, adjustment, servicing, or maintenance while energized to warn the qualified person of the potential for arc flash.

A fine print note that follows the section refers users to NFPA 70E for assistance in:

  • determining severity of potential exposure
  • planning safe work practice
  • selecting PPE.

Managers must keep in mind that NEC fine print notes do not contain statements of intent or recommendation. Rather, they present additional supplementary material intended to aid managers in applying the requirements.

The NEC also does not include language requiring specific information on the field labels, such as flash boundaries and PPE requirements, which NFPA 70E addresses. This section was added in the 2002 code to alert electricians and facilities to the hazards of working on energized electrical equipment, as well as to emphasize the importance of turning off the power before working on the equipment.

It is general consensus that facilities eventually will have to complete flash-hazard analyses for all new equipment, although the NEC does not now require it. Alternatively, they will need to default to generic tables provided in NFPA 70E to determine boundaries and PPE requirements. This type of safety analysis or program will be uncharted territory for many facilities.

In the event of an electrical accident, OSHA, court precedent, and the review commission have established Section 5(a)(1) as a general-duty clause if unsafe conditions are identified for which a regulation does not exist. Such a clause citation may be issued if:

  • The employer failed to keep the workplace free of a hazard to which its employees were exposed.
  • The hazard was recognized. Examples include recognition by safety personnel, employees, organization, trade organization, and industry customs.
  • The hazard caused or was likely to cause death or serious physical harm.
  • A feasible and useful method existed to correct the hazard.

Adhering to these items will help managers provide a safer working environment.

Protection through Prevention

Ensuring the highest level of protection from workplace hazards requires the cooperative efforts of organizations, managers and front-line technicians.

Under NFPA 70E, employers must furnish each employee with employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Chapter 1 of NFPA 70E covers training requirements for qualified and unqualified persons to help managers determine those employees who are permitted to work on or near exposed energized equipment. It requires an electrical safety program and covers program components.

NFPA 70E details the importance of maintaining electrical components, wiring and equipment in safe condition. It also outlines safety requirements for special equipment, which includes batteries, lasers, and power electronic equipment — electric arc welding equipment, motor drives, uninterruptible power supplies, and lighting controllers that contain rectifiers and inverters.

Employers have to determine all exposures to hazards in their workplaces and determine if technicians must wear PPE. In general, OSHA requires employers to be responsible for:

  • performing a hazard assessment of the workplace to identify and control physical and health hazards
  • identifying and providing appropriate PPE for employees
  • training employees in the use and care of the PPE
  • maintaining PPE, including replacing worn or damaged PPE
  • periodically reviewing, updating and evaluating the effectiveness of the PPE program.

In general, employees should:

  • wear PPE properly
  • attend training sessions on PPE.
  • care for, clean and maintain PPE.
  • inform a supervisor of the need to repair or replace PPE.

PPE Program

If technicians are required to wear PPE to reduce exposure to hazards, managers need to implement and maintain a PPE program. As defined in NFPA 70E, this program should:

  • identify and evaluate workplace hazards
  • determine if using PPE is an appropriate control measure
  • determine, providing PPE must be used, how will it be selected and maintained and how will its use be evaluated
  • train employees to use the PPE
  • be vigilant in determining its effectiveness in preventing injury or illness.


OSHA requires employers to mandate the use of PPE to reduce employee exposure to hazards when engineering and administrative controls are not feasible or effective. OSHA Publication 3151 discusses the types of PPE that employers use most commonly to protect the head, torso, arms, hands and feet.

NFPA 70E was written to set minimum level of safety standards to protect front-line technicians working on potentially hazardous equipment and systems. Following this document’s safety guidelines will help managers prevent injuries and save lives.

Michael Newbury is a principal at Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.


The Rise of NFPA 70E

In January 1976, NFPA’s standards council appointed a new electrical standards development committee. At the direction of the U.S. Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created the committee to develop new regulations for occupational safety using existing national consensus standards and established federal standards.

The committee’s goal was to assist OSHA in preparing electrical safety standards that would serve its needs and could be efficiently disseminated through the provisions of Section 6(b) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In attempting to use the latest edition of NFPA 70 and the National Electrical Code (NEC), OSHA confronted several problems.

This led to the concept of writing a document that would extract suitable portions from the NEC and other sources applicable to electrical safety. A study by committee found it feasible to develop a standard for electrical installations that would be compatible with the OSHA requirements for employee safety in locations covered by the NEC.

The new standard was named NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety Requirements for Employee Workplaces, and was published in 1979. The most recent edition of NFPA 70E (2004) included its reorganization into the NEC format.

— Michael Newbury

Contact FacilitiesNet Editorial Staff »

  posted on 10/1/2005   Article Use Policy

Related Topics: