With the end of the year upon us, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the state of safety in our industry, to evaluate where we are today, and consider what more we need to do in the new year ahead. As a guide, I often look to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for data to help me understand the risks, injuries, and deaths associated with electrical and non-electrical occupations.
According to BLS, the average number of electrical exposure fatalities (2011-2019) in construction and extraction occupations (75 fatalities), installation, maintenance, and repair occupations (34 fatalities), and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations (20 fatalities), account for a majority (79 percent) of the 153 annual electrical exposure fatalities. So just exactly, who are these people dying from exposure to electricity while at work? Figure 1 shows the average electrical exposure fatalities for a specific occupation from 2011 through 2019.
Those who read NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, often get hung up on the phrase working on electrical equipment as a reason not to address electrical safety in their workplace. Six of these nine occupations do not work on electrical equipment, but rather they interact with it. And often, they are not actively interacting with electrical equipment when they become a fatality. Five of these are on the OSHA list of occupational categories of employees facing a higher-than-normal risk of an electrical accident.
Many people say that from these nine occupations, only the electrician is required to follow NFPA 70E. Electricians are often deemed as a “qualified person” by their employers when they implement NFPA 70E. Yet, while electricians are the vanguards of electrical safety, there are many electrical-related deaths happening each year. Statistically, electricians are possibly exposed to potential electrical hazards more often than most other occupations. They consistently account for nearly 22 percent of all electrical exposure fatalities and 37 percent of electrical exposure fatalities in construction occupations. Another way to look at this is, about 80 electricians die every year at work, and about 25 of those deaths come from exposure to electricity. Supervisors at construction sites are often responsible for the day-to-day on-site safety and enforcement. However, eight supervisors per year are electrocuted while at construction sites. These are not good track records for the leaders in electrical safety.
Another occupation of concern is the grounds worker. There could be several reasons for this. They could be contacting electrical wiring not properly protected by the installation, using extension cords that are damaged, or being exposed to outdoor electrical equipment that is not properly maintained. Fifteen deaths a year due to electricity is too many for this occupation. Another alarming statistic points to 30 workers a year being killed by direct contact with an overhead powerline. While I was unable to find specific occupations listed in the BLS database, power-line workers, tree trimmers, roofers, and painters are the most common occupations associated with this type of fatality, often due to the use of a ladder, pole extension, or boom. In my experience, the HVAC technician deaths can be attributed to a lack of education or awareness about the risks of electrical injury on the job. In the case of production workers, the deaths could be tied to a lack of proper maintenance of production line equipment. NFPA 70E is written to protect these unqualified workers when exposed to electrical hazards while working, so it is incumbent on all employers to implement an electrical safety program to eliminate deaths from electricity on the job.
NFPA 70E is concerned with electrical safety in the workplace for all workers. Regardless of the occupation, there is the potential for a fatality due to exposure to electrical hazards. But by using the data as a guide and recognizing trends and concerns, we can apply the safety protocols that NFPA 70E outlines, develop actionable plans to reduce the incident numbers, and drive a positive safety culture now and into the next year.
Learn more about how electrical incident data is helping inform safety training and how OSHA relies on 70E to enforce electrical safety standards and the general duty clause through the NFPA 125th Conference Series program, “Empowering Electrical Design, Installation and Safety,” now available on-demand through May 18, 2022.