Two researchers hope to improve safety by surveying hot work practices among electricians
A few years back, an electrician was electrocuted while installing equipment in a manufacturing facility in Detroit. An investigation after his death revealed that the worker had asked to shut down the power first, but the plant manager had denied his request — apparently because he didn't want to lose his air conditioning. This is just one tragic example Michael McCann can quickly recall off the top of his head when citing electrical construction safety statistics.
McCann has made it his mission to make sense of construction workers' mistakes for the last six years in an effort to prevent similar injuries and fatalities from happening in the future. He's the director of safety for the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), the Silver Spring, Md.-based research, development, and training arm of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, and he recently came one step closer in his quest to understanding why contact with electrical current is the fourth leading cause of death among construction workers.
McCann's latest survey, “Live Work Practices Among Construction Electricians,” is a follow-up to a previous study he conducted in 2003 that revealed the main cause of injuries and death among electrical workers was direct contact with live electrical equipment, wiring, and light fixtures. Such accidents accounted for 53% of the 351 electrical deaths that occurred between 1992 and 1998.
McCann worked with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to mail the questionnaire out to 5,000 union electricians. It asked workers about how and when they performed energized work, activities under which conditions were energized, electrical safety training, contractor health and safety programs, personal protective equipment, electrical safety tools, and other safety practices.
After more than 1,300 contractors responded (26.6%) to the first and only mailing, McCann received some interesting feedback, including the respondents' experience level: 78% had been in the industry for more than 11 years (Fig. 1 above). To help analyze the data, he enlisted Jeffrey Potts, who was a graduate student in the environmental occupational health track at George Washington University. Potts, who has since moved on to the National Institute of Health's Division of Safety Office, was looking for a thesis topic related to occupational safety, and McCann's study fit the bill. Many of the following results are excerpted, with permission, from Potts' thesis entitled, “Survey of Energized Work Practices Among Construction Electricians.”
Significant findings. McCann hoped to gather information that could potentially assist in the development of an industry standard of uniform safety programs for construction electricians as it pertained to work practices on live circuits. To get to that information, the study first asked the contractors if they had worked on energized circuits. As shown in Fig. 2 above, more than 75% reported working live in the last month. Of that subset, almost 80% said they'd been trained to work on energized circuits by various parties, including the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (NJATC), their employers, consultants, or the military.
The researchers knew that a company with a written safety program is statistically more likely to use the appropriate protective gear and equipment than a company that doesn't, so Potts was troubled to find that only 48% of respondents had a program in place (Fig. 3 below). To make matters worse, the quality of those programs was questionable. “Even of those that did have a written safety program, many didn't really specify what types of PPE should be worn when,” he says. “The lack of a clear, concise plan for workers to follow really surprised me.”
Fig. 3 also sheds more specific light on what elements the program encompasses for working above and below 600V.
A related question, which prompted respondents to recall what types of personal protective equipment (PPE) they wore when working live, revealed safety glasses were the most-used form of PPE. For a comparison of which types of PPE electricians said they wore and in what situations, see Table 1. Similarly, respondents identified which types of equipment, including insulated hand tools, insulated blankets, fiberglass ladders, temporary protective grounds, and voltage-rated instruments, they used when working live (Table 2). As you can see, insulating blankets and temporary protective grounds were the least used of the safety equipment for workers with and without written safety programs.
McCann believes that one of the biggest problems when it comes to PPE is that much of the gear is very uncomfortable to wear and hard to maneuver in. However, it's more important than ever these days to wear it, as much higher currents are running through many systems. “You can actually get temperatures equivalent to the sun for about a tenth of a second if an arc blast comes out,” he says. “The higher the temperatures, the stronger the blast, so you have to wear more and more layers.”
But personal protection isn't just limited to flame-resistant (FR) clothing. For example, McCann says that inserting circuit breakers into a 600V switchgear while the doors are open would require — in addition to layers of FR clothing — a hard hat with FR liner, eye protection, face protection, hearing protection, voltage-rated gloves, and leather shoes.
Some design methods have also been found to decrease the risk to electricians. “On a lot of these electrical panels, you'll see the disconnect switch on the right hand side,” McCann says. “Electricians use what's called the left-hand rule, i.e. you stand away from it and use your left hand to pull the lever so if there is a blast, it's going to come out straight and not at you.”
However, some panels are designed with the disconnect in the middle of the panel front. McCann knows one electrician who stands off to the side and uses a fiberglass rod to operate the handle.
However, these work practices hint at an even greater issue, says McCann, referring to certain equipment design and layout problems that he says can't be overcome with proper PPE alone (Sidebar below).
Analysis and discussion. According to McCann and Potts, one of the most surprising results the study uncovered is the apparent confusion among some respondents about when they last worked hot. Of the individuals who originally answered “No” to the generic question about working on energized circuits, nearly 85% indicated in later responses that they had, in fact, worked live in some capacity. Table 3 lists specific job duties respondents eventually recalled after being prompted with additional follow-up questions. Voltage testing ranked as the most frequently “forgotten” live job duty performed.
Table 4 (click here) takes a closer look at the proportion of workers who performed high-risk jobs that involved the possibility of arc flashes with no written safety program. A key finding here is that less than 1% of these workers performed any of the high-risk work above 600V. All but one of the job functions were performed more often at less than 240V than at 240 to 600V. The duty of opening high-voltage transformer compartments presented the only exceptions: 5% less than 240V versus 7% at 240 to 600V. The job most electricians performed live without a written safety program was “operating a circuit breaker/fused switch with cover open.”
McCann isn't sure why many electricians perform certain tasks, such as using a voltmeter to test a circuit or disconnect — where they shut off the power just by pulling a lever — but he speculates that they don't consider them as working hot. However, he warns against such complacency. “I know of fatalities where someone used the wrong voltmeter, had it on the wrong scale, and it blew up,” he says. “Or you get an old circuit panel and pull a disconnect on it to disconnect the panel. Sometimes if it's old enough, you can get an arc explosion. So deenergizing is actually working live, and workers need to take the proper precautions.”
On the other hand, Potts suspects the fact that so few electricians realize they're working hot has something to do with a cavalier attitude in certain individuals. “Changing out a light bulb or a ballast might not be that big of a deal because they've done it a million times, and they don't really associate that with working live,” Potts says. “But once you cross that threshold of 600V, there's a lot more appreciation for the voltage you're dealing with. It's low-voltage work that people associate with not being as dangerous.”
That's exactly why McCann hates the term “low-voltage.” “Working live means that you're not disconnecting the power before you work on it — it doesn't matter if it's low or high voltage,” he says. “In fact, 12% of the electrocution fatalities of electricians in construction [citing former research] were due to installing or repairing light fixtures. What many people don't realize is there are still a lot of fatalities with 110 and 220V.”
Taking action. Based on the survey findings and analysis, McCann and Potts made three policy recommendations — promote the adoption of an industry standard for a live-work permit system, develop a standardized training program for contractors, and receive more specific guidance and regulation from OSHA in the current construction standard.
Data from this questionnaire showed that of those workers who identified having a written electrical safety program, 59% already had a permit system in place to authorize work on energized circuits, such as the one in the 2004 edition of NFPA 70E. “If 70E gets adopted by OSHA, or even once there's a standard that's generally accepted, then OSHA can cite it as a general duty clause,” McCann says.
According to McCann, that percentage isn't bad but it could be better. Although it's currently not mandatory, he believes a live work permit system should identify the person who will perform the work, state the worker's training and/or certifications, designate when the work will be performed, spell out PPE recommendations and requirements, and identify the potential hazards associated with working on the particular energized circuit. Finally, the permit should list any specific procedures that need to be followed for either performing the work or restricting access to the work area.
Although many respondents indicated they had received training from their employers, the study didn't ask for specific information regarding this training. McCann also proposes the industry adopt a standardized training program for contractors so that they have a tool for designing site-specific training. He maintains that employers as a whole would probably be less likely than the NJATC to have strict training requirements and sessions; therefore, national or state training guidelines might ensure better quality training for the construction electricians after any initial training from the NJATC.
Seeking additional guidance from OSHA in the current standard would also help tremendously, McCann says, because companies are currently left to somewhat police themselves, deciding what may or may not be important to workers and when to give training. According to Potts' thesis, this idea should be coupled with a policy for OSHA to rewrite 1926.417, which outlines lock-out/tag-out procedures for electrical construction work.
Besides improving work practices and procedures, McCann says the industry needs to think more about the rationale behind working live. After determining whether or not the work really has to be done on energized equipment, workers must be able to hold owners or supervisors accountable through a work permit system. “Before the work is done energized, I'd like to see the owner of the building — or whoever is saying it can't be deenergized — have to sign for it,” he says. “I'd like to see how many of them would be willing to put their John Hancock on it.”
Parson is a freelance writer and editor based in Lee's Summit, Mo.
Sidebar: Worker Safety Beyond PPE
Although Michael McCann, PhD, directory of safety for the Center to Protect Workers' Rights in Silver Spring, Md., is a staunch promoter of wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), he points out that sometimes safety is beyond an electrician's control. Especially when working in older buildings, the design or layout of the equipment presents additional obstacles and often requires workers to wear more and more layers of PPE. “Because this gets so uncomfortable, I think it's ultimately the wrong way to go,” McCann says.
He also points out that the recommended PPE won't even protect against second-degree burns. “Engineering controls should be used instead of PPE whenever possible.”
The example in the main text regarding an electrician who devised a creative alternative to the “left-hand” rule when deenergizing a circuit breaker panelboard was one case of an engineering control McCann cited. Another example is using a movable pulley system to operate heavy pull switches from the side as opposed to wearing more layers of PPE and standing in front of the equipment. “We need more use of existing equipment, such as current-limiting fuses that will quickly shut down if the current surges above a certain level, indicating an incipient arc blast,” he adds.