Since the inception of OSHA nearly 40 years ago, overall workplace fatalities have been cut by more than 60%, and incidence rates of occupational injury and illness have declined by 40%. All of this occurred during an era of unprecedented growth in the United States, where the total number of workers more than doubled in size. However, in spite of these dramatic advancements in health and safety, thousands of work-related fatalities and life-altering injuries still occur each year.

According to the Center for Disease Control's National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), headquartered in Washington, D.C., the construction industry is comprised of approximately 8% of the U.S. workforce; however, it accounts for 44% of occupational fatalities — the largest number reported from any industry sector. Electrical hazards cause more than 300 deaths and 4,000 injuries in the workplace each year. In fact, electrical accidents rank sixth among all causes of work-related deaths in the United States. Although electrical hazards are not the leading cause of on-the-job injuries, accidents, and fatalities, they are disproportionately fatal and costly.

This past year, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), Rosslyn, Va., began an extensive review of data on electrical injuries and fatalities. At the conclusion of this review, the foundation determined that more information needed to be made available to the industry so that important injury trends could be detected and responded to in a timely manner. Through this process, ESFI was reintroduced to a study that had examined electrical injuries and fatalities using data that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Washington, D.C., had collected from 1992 to 2002.

ESFI has extended the prior data to now include information about U.S. workplace electrical injuries that occurred between 2003 and 2007. An analysis of this data revealed injury trends within select industries, introduced statistics about common work-related injuries, and allowed for calculation of both fatal and nonfatal electrical injury rates. Additionally, nonfatal electrical shock and burn injury experiences of select industries were examined.

The facts

Between 2003 and 2007, 28,401 workers died while on the job. Contact with some form of electric current was the seventh leading cause of occupational fatalities during this period, accounting for 1,213 work-related fatalities. Another 13,150 workers were injured so severely from these electrical accidents that their injuries required time off from work.

Electrical fatalities — Historically, the construction industry has had the greatest number of electrical fatalities, a trend that continued between 2003 and 2007, according to data collected. During this time, electrical fatalities in the construction industry increased from 47% of the total number in the private industry to 52%, for a total of 595 deaths (click here to see Fig. 1).

Construction trades (including electricians, construction laborers, painters, roofers, and carpenters) and installation, maintenance, and repair professionals (including those who install and repair electrical power lines, HVAC, and refrigeration equipment and perform general maintenance and repair work) were recognized as the top two occupational groups with the most fatal electrical injuries from 2003 to 2007. During this time, construction trades accounted for 445 (37%) of total electrical fatalities while another 257 (21%) of these fatal work-related accidents occurred during installation, maintenance, and repair of electrical power lines, HVAC, and refrigeration equipment.

A total of 207 (47%) of the victims who worked in construction trades were electricians. Another 104 (23%) were construction laborers, 27 (6%) were painters, 26 (6%) were roofers, and 24 (6%) of construction trade workers who were victims of electrical fatalities from 2003 to 2007 were carpenters. The specific circumstances surrounding the electrocutions in the remaining 12% of the deaths were not categorized in these data.

During this five-year period, 91 (35%) installation, maintenance, or repair professionals were fatally injured while installing or repairing electrical power lines. A total of 39 (15%) of the victims were electrocuted while servicing HVAC and refrigeration equipment. Another 31 (12%) were killed in electrical fatalities that occurred while performing general maintenance and repair work. The specific circumstances surrounding the electrocutions in the remaining 38% of the deaths were not categorized in these data.

Nonfatal electrical injuries — ESFI also examined nonfatal injuries occurring in private industry by selected industries and by nature of injury — specifically whether they are electrical shocks or electrical burns. The BLS data categorizes electrical injury into only these two categories and does not discriminate between types of electrical burns. ESFI analysis of private industry data on nonfatal electrical injuries over a five-year period from 2003 to 2007 confirms that the greatest number of electrical injuries occur in the construction industry, followed by the manufacturing industry. A total of 4,100 (31%) of all nonfatal electrical injuries reported during this five-year period occurred in the construction industry, 1,710 (42%) of the victims in the construction industry suffered electrical shock injuries, and 2,390 (58%) were treated for electrical burn injuries (click here to see Fig. 2).

In the construction and utility industries, the number of electrical burns exceeds the number of electric shocks; however, in all other industries the number of electric shocks exceeds the number of electric burns, without exception.

The trends

Examining electrical injury rates also provided some interesting insights. Fatality rates are reported per 100,000 workers, while nonfatal electrical injuries are reported per 10,000 workers. Computing a rate of injury is useful, because it normalizes the data with respect to employment and allows for comparison of electrical injury experiences between industries that range significantly in size.

The construction industry has the highest number of electrical fatalities of any industry, with about 52% of all occupational electrical fatalities between 2003 and 2007. The event with the highest fatality rates in this industry is contact with overhead power lines, followed by contact with wiring, transformers, or other electrical components.

Over the last five years, the electrical fatality rate for construction has shown steady improvement from a record high of 1.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2003 to the 2007 rate of 0.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers (click here to see Fig. 3). The rate of power line electrocutions in the construction industry has also experienced a downward trend from 0.7 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2003) to 0.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2007). The rate of electrical fatality from contact with wiring, transformers, or other electrical components shows no clear trend, reflecting a total of 0.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2003 and remaining moderately consistent through 2007 with 0.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers. Across this same period, the rate of all private industry electrical fatalities remained at a constant 0.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

In contrast to the decrease in the electrical fatality rate experienced across the construction industry over the last five years, the nonfatal electrical injury rate has increased slightly from 1.0 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers in 2003 to the 2007 rate of 1.2 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers — a modest overall increase and a vast improvement from the sharp peak of 1.6 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers experienced in 2005.

When evaluating nonfatal electrical injury rates in the construction industry by event from 2003 to 2007, contact with overhead power lines is no longer a major event in this category. Injuries sustained from overhead power lines tend to be fatal much more often today than do other types of electrical injury.

The leading nonfatal electrical injury event category is contact with wiring transformers or other electrical components, which appears to be trending slightly upward from a rate of 0.4 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers in 2003 to 0.6 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers in 2007. In 2005, the injury rate in the construction industry experienced a sharp peak to a record high of 1.0 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers but has improved significantly since that time and has since remained consistent. The rate of nonfatal electrical injury in the construction industry caused by contact with electric current of machines, tools, appliances, or light fixtures has experienced a slight decrease during this five-year period from 0.3 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers (2003) to 0.1 nonfatal injuries per 10,000 workers (2007).

Between 2003 and 2007, the nonfatal electrical burn injury rate in the construction industry remained between 0.5 injuries per 10,000 workers and 1.0 injuries per 10,000 workers during the entire period with no clear trend in either direction. Clearly the construction industry has the highest rate of electric shock injury, experiencing a steady rate of 0.6 injuries per 10,000 workers from 2004 to 2006 and improving slightly at 0.5 injuries per 10,000 workers in 2007. Across this same period, the rate of all private industry nonfatal electrical injuries remained at a constant 0.2 injuries per 10,000 workers.

Cross-industry analysis

While these numbers are intriguing, they have an increasingly profound impact when introduced into a broader context that allows for a comparative analysis and offers a point of reference from which we can begin to understand and interpret the reality reflected by these numbers.

The construction industry has the highest number of electrical fatalities of any industry, with about 52% of all occupational electrical fatalities. Over the five-year period from 2003 to 2007, the number of electrical fatalities in the construction industry increased by 4%, while the total number of these fatalities in the manufacturing industry decreased from 10% to 8% — and in the trade, transportation and utilities industries remained at a constant 11%.

When compiling these data, ESFI focused exclusively on data relating to selected private industry sectors that include utilities, mining, construction, and agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. The utility industry, in general, has the highest rate of electrical fatality followed by the mining, construction, and agricultural industries, respectively. The utility industry experienced an increase in electrical fatality rate from 1.1 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2003) to 1.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2007) with a record high of 1.8 fatalities per 100,000 workers reported in 2006. Comparatively, the construction industry experienced a decrease during this same period, from a high of 1.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2003) to a record low of 0.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers (2007). The rate of all private industry electrical fatalities during this time remained at a constant 0.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

Additionally, the greatest number of nonfatal electrical injuries (31%) occurs in the construction industry, followed next by the manufacturing industry (19%). The utility industry clearly has the highest rate of nonfatal electric burn injury peaking at approximately 2.7 per 100,000 workers in 2006 with a dramatic fall to 1.3 per 100,000 workers in 2007 (click here to see Fig. 4). In this category, the construction industry rate remained between 0.5 and 1.0 during the entire period with no clear trend up or down. In contrast, the construction industry clearly has the highest rate of electric shock injury while the electric utility industry fluctuated from 0.5 per 100,000 workers in 2003-2004 to 0.3 per 100,000 workers in 2005 and remained steady at 0.4 per 100,000 workers in 2006-2007 (click here to see Fig. 5). The private industry rate of nonfatal electric shock injury remained at a constant 0.2 injuries per 100,000 workers.

Overall, the results of this study are very promising. Compared to 15 years ago, we are saving more lives, and far fewer individuals are forced to cope with the life-altering trauma that can accompany an electrical injury. However, as an industry, we can and must do better. We strongly believe that zero is the only acceptable number of fatalities and injuries in the workplace. For detailed information on the data go to the BLS Web site at www.bls.gov/iif/#data.

Cawley is an electrical engineer. He can be reached at jcawley@ieee.org. Brenner is the president of ESFI. He can be reached at brett.brenner@esfi.org.


SIDEBAR: Electrical Accident Data Source

In order to accurately determine the number of electrically related fatalities and injuries that occur each year in the United States, ESFI used information from a comprehensive occupational injury survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For fatal accidents, BLS performs an actual count of workplace deaths and verifies the cause of each fatality using death certificates, newspaper articles, police reports, etc. Fatal accident statistics include all workers older than 16 years of age. Counting the number of nonfatal accidents becomes somewhat more complicated, and BLS statistically estimates the number of these accidents using a survey of approximately 230,000 employers each year. Estimates of nonfatal injuries exclude certain groups, such as workers on farms employing fewer than 11 workers and the self-employed.