Why Electrical Workers Are the Unsung Heroes of Dangerous Jobs

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What’s the most dangerous career in the United States?

Watching the evening news — or better yet, asking around — chances are, most people you ask will answer that the people who put their safety on the line most often are probably firefighters, maybe police officers, at least relatively speaking.

Relatively speaking, though, they’d be wrong.

In 2017, more workers in the construction industry died on the job (976) than in any other sector of the U.S. workforce, including government/civil services like firefighting and law enforcement.

In fact, electrical work was almost 4x as likely to result in workplace fatality versus work involving uncontrolled fires.

Electrical Work Is Dangerous Business

Electrical workers are critical to keeping us fed, keeping our schools functioning, keeping us safe from the elements, and for manufacturing and installing the things that keep us comfortable in our homes. So why, when their work is so dangerous, yet so necessary, do these workers remain unsung heroes of our everyday lives?

It’s a question of visibility.

We rarely hear reports about workplace shock, arc flash injury, or electrocution on the evening news. And even if we do, most laypersons won’t understand how these too-frequent accidents take place.

This should come as no surprise: as recently as 30 years ago, widespread adoption of safety protocols was considered something of a “nice-to-have” in industrial contexts, even though many of those same protocols had been around for the 20 years prior.

Injury and death by exposure to electricity will always be a risk. But understanding one of the most well thought-out living documents on safety in our time has made it possible to reduce that risk, and save hundreds more lives year over year.

Electrical workers are the heroes of a very dangerous line of work that we all rely on to make life, as we know it, as livable as it is. Let’s have a look at some of the resources we have at hand to protect them.

Let’s Talk About NFPA-70E

In 2018, two of the top 10 most cited OSHA violations concerned failures to maintain safe conditions for electrical work. But even in workplaces that are up to code, one fact remains constant: as long as there is electricity flowing through an industrial facility, everyone working in that facility will always be at risk. In fact, two-thirds of personnel who suffer workplace electrocution are not themselves electrical workers.

In a fraction of a second, an electrical incident can claim lives and cause permanently disabling injuries. Hundreds of deaths and thousands of burn injuries occur each year due to shock, electrocution, arc flash, and arc blast — and most could be prevented through compliance with NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®. Make sure everyone goes home at night. — NFPA.org

That’s where NFPA-70E can help. 70E is a rich resource for applying safe work practices.

Some historical background from NFPA can help put the initiative in context:

The NFPA 70E, developed at OSHA’s request, includes information about the effects of arc flash, arc blast, direct current hazards, and developments in electrical design and personal protective equipment (PPE). It also provides details for compliance with OSHA 1910 Subpart S and OSHA 1926 Subpart K.

In fact, while OSHA issues performance regulations that force employers to comply with federal, NEC, and other standards, the former is an agency with enforcement at its core. OSHA is a branch of the government charged with seeing to it that conditions are safe — not with educating facilities managers and workers about how to make that safety come to life. OSHA may provide the rules of engagement, but it looks to the consensus-derived wisdom contained in NFPA-70E for how to pragmatically put actual safe conditions in place.

The good news is that in actual practice NFPA-70E is continuously changing mentalities of employers and workers. That’s because 70E details best practices that address a fundamental conflict underlying all industrial facilities.

The electrical equipment that powers any facility requires periodic repairs as well as routine maintenance and quality control. But the primary objective of a facilities manager will always be to ensure maximum manufacturing productivity. That is: to keep the operation moving without disruption or stoppage. For years, the former was regarded as a limiting factor to the latter, a mindset that put all hands-on workers at risk.

Safety: The Real Bottom Line

In the past, to minimize impacts on production, manufacturers often insisted that electrical personnel should work on equipment in energized environments, with cumbersome (though not necessarily effective) PPE acting as their baseline safety measure.

That’s a protocol that needs to stay in the past.

The safest way to do electrical work is to create an electrically safe work condition for equipment. In such a circumstance, electrical workers do not have to wear PPE or be concerned with the hazards posed by shock and arc flash. This measure also helps to protect everyone working adjacent to the maintenance effort.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, NFPA-70E teaches us that rendering electrical equipment essentially inert for a period of time is not just the safest course of action, but the most profitable one for the manufacturer. That’s because the cost of responding to a serious electrical injury or fatality is tremendous across the board and disruptive to the workforce at large.

More and more, contractors and their clients are getting familiar with the procedures outlined in NFPA-70E. They are coming to realize that the potential for incurring fines, legal costs, damage to equipment, branding concerns, and employee morale are liabilities that vastly outweigh the perceived benefits of a 100% seamless workflow.

Applying NFPA-70E is also, plainly, the right thing to do. And employers worldwide are getting the picture. The year-over-year decline in workplace fatalities due to electrical work is testament to this gradual shift in thinking.

With great power comes great responsibility: who is NFPA-70E training good for?

Transforming the ever-expanding library of current electrical safety information into a workable strategy for your needs can be difficult. Some companies make the mistake of attempting to satisfy OSHA requirements rather than establishing a policy that protects its employees. But simply reflecting the spirit of OSHA’s protocols and perhaps avoiding its punitive gaze does not provide a safe workplace.

Understanding Facility Safety

When a company establishes a comprehensive policy based in the pragmatic wisdom captured in NFPA-70E, the requirements of OSHA can be satisfied easily — while real, profitable, and humane conditions are brought to life.

Making it happen just requires a will to stay ahead of the curve in safety, and that’s a win-win: internal paradigm shifts are indicators of a company’s commitment to progress.

Consider the inverse. As recently as 2005, it was common to find electrical maintenance personnel who felt they could do work on energized equipment. Luckily, that’s swiftly becoming an artifact of an outmoded mindset.

Facilities that are fluent in the language of NFPA-70E tend to find themselves staffed with workers who believe that their personal best interests are top of mind all the way up the chain of command.

Brushing up on 70E

Protect your employees with the right safety products. Leviton provides products and training designed to protect electrical workers, electricians, and anyone who needs to put their hands on electrical equipment in the workplace, from install to maintenance.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely Leviton's. They do not necessarily represent WESCO’s views. 

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