A True Story of Electrical Safety: The Inspector, The Electrician, and The Contractor

NFPA Code Corner
NFPA Code Corner

This isn’t a fairy tale, it’s a true story. A story of how an electrical inspector, an electrician, and an electrical contractor all collaborated to complete a project with the highest level of electrical safety possible. They checked their egos at the door, each using their unique expertise to benefit each other and the project, and in turn saved the building’s occupants from the peril of a potential electrical tragedy. And so, the story begins, taking into account the roles they each play…

The Inspector

As with all involved in this chronicle, the electrical inspector plays a key role in a safe electrical installation. Often, they can be the bookends to the overall installation, being the first to touch the proposed electrical installation documents during the plan review stage and the last out the door of the completed building, confirming the building is safe for occupancy from an electrical standpoint. All of this, of course, is measured against the safe installation requirements found within the pages of the National Electrical Code® (NEC®).

Electrical inspectors have a unique role in that they are the gatekeepers, meaning, the one with the final say about whether or not an electrical installation has been done safely and meets the applicable NEC requirements. In their role, safety weighs heavily on the electrical inspector as they carry the burden of verifying that all electrical work meets code and is therefore safe. In high occupancy buildings, such as theaters, churches, and sports arenas, the pressure can be even more intense. There can be tens of thousands of lives that depend on a thorough and accurate building electrical inspection; a heavy burden for any single person to carry and one that should be appreciated tremendously. When working together to make a building electrically safe, electricians and contractors need to keep in mind the pressure on electrical inspectors as they perform their inspections to meet the intent of the NEC, as they see it.

Which leads the story to a similar area. In most cases, the electrical inspector is considered the authority having jurisdiction, or AHJ. With that title, the electrical inspector becomes an individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of the NEC. They are also tasked with approving equipment and materials, as well as installation procedures used by the electrician as part of the overall building electrical system. Section 90.4 provides some parameters around the AHJ’s enforcement of the NEC. Part of enforcing the NEC is that it must be interpreted. If five people are asked to read the same section of the NEC, there is a chance that there will be at least three or four variations of the interpretation. So it goes with electrical inspectors, electricians, and contractors. Not everyone is going to agree 100 percent of the time on how a code section is interpreted, which is why the NEC clearly states in Section 90.4(B) that the AHJ enforcing the code has the responsibility for making interpretations of the rules. If everyone gets to decide, then a decision never gets made. Someone has to own interpretation of the NEC and it is clearly stated that determination is up to the AHJ.

This doesn’t mean that inspectors, electricians, and contractors can’t have respectful dialogue around NEC interpretation and their view of what the best way is of achieving a safe electrical installation. It just needs to be understood by all parties that the inspector has the final say on NEC interpretations because they are the one signing off on the building being electrically safe for occupants. In another story of a young man who was bitten by a spider, the words of his Uncle Ben echo, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” Inspectors should keep these words in mind as they work toward fostering relationships with those they work with, including electricians and contractors. Following are two suggestions for inspectors to help foster a positive working relationship between themselves and the inspected:

  • Never base inspection decisions solely on your personal experience or preconceived ideas. Be sure all electrical inspections are completed based upon specific NEC requirements and any relevant local amendments.
  • Make the difficult conversations with electricians and contractors about learning. Provide the actual NEC code sections that apply to your enforcement and have an open dialogue with one another about its interpretation, keeping in mind and reiterating the fact that the end goal for all parties should be to provide the safest possible building electrical system. This will likely help those tough conversations to be better received.

The Electrician

The electrician is charged with physically performing a safe electrical installation based on the NEC. Electricians learn through an apprenticeship and many years of on-the-job training, likely with a little bit of light-hearted hazing mixed in from their more experienced peers. At one point, they may have been asked to dig a ditch, only to be immediately told that it was no longer needed and to fill it back in. Or asked to call the boss back at the office, to ask him where the pipe stretcher is (which did not even exist). All in good fun as a way of being brought into the electrical brotherhood, earning them both their stripes and respect.  Hours upon hours in the classroom, learning and perfecting their craft. While the best of the best know that learning their trade isn’t a four- or five-year sprint during their apprenticeship, it’s a marathon that never ends until they hang up their aged and worn-out tool pouch for the final time.

Over time electricians begin to foster a well-earned pride about their knowledge and ability deep inside their soul. But it is important that they understand that they cannot let the bravado that builds inside prevent them from looking at the bigger picture. Mistakes will be made and that’s okay, but they must learn from them. What they learn should be shared with others to help them understand and not make the same mistakes. Electricians eventually become teachers of the trade, as others around them will look to them to share their knowledge and experience. It is important that the knowledge they pass on is accurate and foundational in meeting NEC requirements. It’s imperative to a safe installation that we don’t pass along inaccurate, non-compliant information just because “it’s how we have always done it.”

The finished job is what the electrician is most proud of, it’s their version of a trophy. Deep thought, planning, sweat, often a little blood, and maybe even some tears, go into each project they perform. There is just something about taking an open piece of land and turning it into a physical building that can only function in its intended capacity because of the hard-work you and your peers put in to provide electricity to it. With each light that gets turned on and piece of equipment that gets powered up, there is a sense of accomplishment that grows within the electrician. Project after project until, before they know it, they can drive through any part of town, see a building, and point out to their family “Hey, I wired that place!” with a sense of spirited pride.

An electrician’s work ethic and honest words are their bonds to the contractors they work for and the inspectors that they work with. Trust is earned through saying what they are going to do and then doing it to the best of their ability. Knowing their shortcomings and asking for help when it’s needed. Having a relationship with an inspector where you can be open with one another and ask questions to better understand how the NEC applies to the project is invaluable to an electrician. So too must the inspector look to gain knowledge from the electrician. In the history of electrical game, even the wisest man is not batting a thousand. Regardless of our role or intelligence, we all have something yet to learn.

The Contractor

Electrical contractors are either the glue that brings electrical safety together or the banana peel that makes it slip away, before it even starts. The safety culture that a contractor instills in the company is the foundation that employee actions are based upon. Clear expectations must be set and all employees, not just those physically performing electrical work, must be held accountable to those measures. Contractors are not only legally responsible for the safety of their workers via OSHA requirements but, they are more importantly morally responsible for their safety. If we took the largest stadium in the world, filled it with 100,000-plus contractors and asked for a show of hands of those who would enjoy calling an employee’s spouse or parent to tell them that their loved one died on the job that day, I can’t imagine a whole lot of hands being raised. The only way for contractors to prevent that conversation is to take action to prevent it altogether.

Positive contractor action starts with Section 110.3(A) of NFPA 70E requiring all employers to implement and document an electrical safety program (ESP) that directs activity based on electrical hazard risks. The ESP must be based on specified principles, have its effectiveness monitored and measured against established controls, and include procedures, such as risk assessment, that can be utilized by employees exposed to electrical hazards before they begin performing the task. Should an injury or fatality ever occur on a jobsite and an OSHA investigation follows, the contractor’s ESP is likely the first thing that they will want to see. Likely followed by insurance companies and attorneys. First and foremost, establishing and following a usable ESP is the best way to keep employees safe when it comes to electricity, it is also a significant way for contractors to help manage their immense risk.

Training employees on the ESP and the safe work practices associated with doing their job is another aspect of the role electrical contractors play in electrical safety. When employees are exposed to electrical hazards that cannot be reduced to a safe level, NFPA 70E requires employers to train them in safety-related work practices that will help them mitigate the hazards of the task at hand. Even unqualified employees must be trained in, and familiar with, any electrical safety-related practices necessary for their own safety.

Electrical contractors also have a responsibility to other parties outside of their organization when it comes to electrical safety. For example, customers have an expectation that the building or home that they move into has not only a functional electrical system, but one that is safe. It starts with pulling the proper permits. I know that seems like a “no-brainer,” however, there is unpermitted work being done daily across the country. In those cases, the electrical inspector never has an opportunity to determine whether the installation has been done safely and meets NEC requirements. When a permit is not pulled, the onus of accepting responsibility for a building’s safety then shifts from the electrical inspector to the electrical contractor. If someone gets injured or dies, the lawsuit will be directed straight at the contractor; not having the proper permitting is not the best line of defense. Electrical contractors who choose to pull the proper permits for a project can lessen their own risk by engaging an electrical inspector to ensure that the job has been done safely and meets NEC requirements.

The End (But Not Really…)

In the story of true electrical safety, the electrical inspector, the electrician, and the electrical contractor all have different roles; it’s crucial that each is permitted to perform their specific duties as required. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. But stories of electrical safety are ongoing worldwide. They are unique in that each one essentially contains a “choose your own adventure” type of storyline. Those that play a role in electrical safety can decide whether the ending of the story will be a happy one or if it ends tragically. In happy endings, the story is likely to have many protagonists and very few, if any, antagonists. Characters like electrical inspectors, electricians, and electrical contractors in the happy-ending stories work together for the greater good, championing and ensuring that overall electrical safety is achieved. Every story has an ending, but electrical safety never really does. Shared knowledge and collaboration between everyone involved will derive stories of electrical safety achievements that people wish to tell through the end of time. How will your story be written?

Find out more about how you can use NFPA® codes and standards, as well as training and certifications, to improve upon electrical safety in the workplace.

Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this column is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.

Corey Hannahs
Corey Hannahs is an Electrical Content Specialist at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In his current role, he serves as an electrical subject matter expert in the development of products and services that support NFPA documents and stakeholders. Corey is a third-generation electrician, holding licenses as a master electrician, contractor, inspector, and plan reviewer in the state of Michigan. Having held roles as an installer, owner, and executive previously, he has also provided electrical apprenticeship instruction for over 15 years. Corey was twice appointed to the State of Michigan’s Electrical Administrative Board by former Governor Rick Snyder, and he received United States Special Congressional Recognition for founding the B.O.P. (Building Opportunities for People) Program, which teaches construction skills to homeless and underprivileged individuals. He can be reached at channahs@nfpa.org/