According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), working on or around electricity leads to some 4,700 non-fatal injuries each year in the United States alone. Electrical accidents or unintended contact with energized systems is also blamed for an average of one death per day, every day, in the workplace.

Electrical workplace hazards, in fact, occupy three of the top 10 spots in OSHA’s list of top workplace violations (rated by number of violations cited) in 2010. Lockout/tagout violations led the electrical pack with more than 3,000 violations cited, but electrical wiring methods and general electrical violations were cited nearly as often. Also on the list were safety violations that relate to electrical construction, such as lack of fall protection and scaffolding violations (see OSHA’s Top 10 Violations for 2010). In an effort to address urgent safety and health problems faced by Americans in the workplace, OSHA recently implemented a new program in June 2010 that increases civil penalty amounts for violators (see Severe Violator Program Ups Safety Stakes).

Take, for instance, an OSHA citation following an incident at the Iberdrola Streator Cayuga Ridge South Wind Farm near Odell, Ill., in October of 2010. According to OSHA, a wind farm technician suffered second- and third-degree burns and was hospitalized due to the unexpected energization of transformers in three wind turbine towers. OSHA says energy management company Outland Renewable Services failed to ensure that technicians working on the towers affixed personal lock and tag devices on the turbine tower at ground and switch level, resulting in the possibility — and tragic eventuality — that the turbines were energized from ground level while the technicians were 350 ft in the air.

In a news release about the incident, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said Outland’s management was “aware of the potentially hazardous conditions to which its workers could have been exposed” and showed “intentional disregard for employee safety by ignoring OSHA’s requirements for isolating energy sources during servicing operations.” The agency proposed fines of $378,000 for the violations, a number and citation that Outland has contested.

Outland is hardly an outlier. In June of 2010, OSHA levied $430,000 in fines against the U.S. Postal Service for electrical hazards at a mail processing facility in Scarborough, Maine. In this case, the inspection was prompted by a complaint from workers at the facility rather than by a workplace injury or death. Inspectors said they found employees working with or near live equipment without adequate training, qualifications, or proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The violation also cited lack of safety-related work practices and appropriate electrical hazard warning signs. Such conditions, OSHA contends, exposed the facility’s workers to the potential hazards of electric shock, arc flash, and arc blast, necessitating significant fines in order to get management’s attention. “These citations and sizable fines reflect the Postal Service’s failure to equip its workers with the necessary knowledge and skills to safely work with live electrical parts,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels about the citation.

Or consider the case of steel manufacturer Republic Engineered Products and the results of an inspection at its Lorain, Ohio, facility late last year. In May, OSHA cited Republic for repeatedly exposing workers to energy control hazards, among other violations, after a worker was hospitalized with a broken pelvis when he fell 9 ft from a coil transfer car in the bar mill. OSHA proposed penalties of $480,500 for exposing employees to falls from the car and an unguarded platform — and for failing to affix lockout/tagout devices to control the unexpected energizing of equipment.

The central role electrical safety plays in OSHA inspections, as well as the gravity with which the agency views these violations, can be seen in two other OSHA lists. One is the agency’s top 10 most frequently cited standards. OSHA 29 CRF 1910.47 — control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) is the sixth most-cited standard. Number seven is OSHA 29 CFR 1910.305 — electrical wiring methods, components, and equipment. The ninth most frequently cited standard is OSHA 29 CFR 1910.303 — electrical systems design. Electrical violations can also be costly. In 2010, for example, the dollar amount OSHA levied for violations of general electrical standards was second only to total fines for lack of adequate fall protection. Fines for failing to properly control hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) were the fourth most hefty.

Analyze, assess, and document

A crib sheet for how to comply with OSHA workplace electrical standards might read something like this: First, analyze and identify all workplace electrical hazards — then document everything. OSHA inspectors can and likely will ask for detailed documentation about electrical systems during an inspection. Before doing any work on an electrical system, make sure you have a detailed job description of the planned work. Inspectors will probably ask for written approval records. By all means, have documented lockout/tagout plans and procedures. Make sure all employees who might work on or come in contact with electrical systems have been properly trained. Document that too. Who took the classes, where were they offered, and what was covered? Pay special attention to who is qualified to work on electrical systems as well to how OSHA (as well as NFPA, the National Fire Prevention Association) defines “qualified persons” for electrical systems work.

Both OSHA and NFPA standards commit several paragraphs to the definition of a “qualified person” for electrical work, noting that it is possible for someone to be considered qualified for work on certain systems and equipment, but that this qualification hardly means the same person is qualified for all systems or work, even within the same building or system. The installation of new equipment, OSHA adds, may require additional training in order to expand or even retain a previously qualified worker’s electrical qualifications.

Dennis K. Neitzel, CPE, director emeritus of the AVO Training Institute, Inc., in Dallas, and a principal committee member of the NFPA 70E, says qualifications are important, but so is training and experience in the field. “Too many are receiving what I would call ‘quick and dirty’ training, which is very minimal, and appears to be only enough for the company to have some documentation,” says Neitzel. “Unfortunately, because of this insufficient training, people are still taking shortcuts by not performing lockout/tagout, working on exposed energized conductors or circuit parts, not using proper PPE, and using un-insulated tools.”

The industry overall, Neitzel contends, is also losing seasoned electrical workers due to retirement. Those workers are being replaced by younger workers who he says may not have the field experience, knowledge, and/or training to be safe and efficient.

John Kolak, president of electrical safety consultancy Praxis Corp. of Granbury, Texas, concurs. “We have gotten away from structured training and apprenticeship,” he notes. “An electrician can be anyone from a fully qualified journeyman to someone who has hardly had a basic electricity class and calls himself an electrician.”

Accident-prone

Insufficient or ineffective training, along with lack of field experience, can lead to poor decision making and fateful consequences on the job, experts say.

NIOSH statistics, Neitzel notes, show that several hundred deaths occur each year as a result of electric shock, with a large number attributable to work being done on 120V systems. At least part of the problem, he suggests, is that both qualified and non-qualified workers tend to overlook 120V systems, underestimating the danger. He calculates that under average working conditions (working on a standard 120V system where the person is perspiring and has a resistance of only 1,000-ohms from hand-to-hand), current can flow through that person’s body at 0.12A (or 120mA) — more than enough current to cause heart fibrillations and possible death (click here to see Table).

“We are still having to acclimate workers to the fact that 120V will kill them,” warns Kolak. “When it gets down to 120V, almost everyone barehands it. They are also doing more energized work than they will admit. They say they are doing more lockout/tagout work, but they don’t see the need to do it. They don’t think 120V systems are dangerous.”

Kolak sees a real killer in a common workplace electrical chore done on 120V systems — the re-ballasting of fluorescent lights. “Electrical workers could shut off the circuit breaker and use temporary lighting, but they might not take the time to do that,” he says. “They leave the rest of the lights energized, change the ballast, and re-wire them again.”

Then there’s the reality of both qualified and non-qualified workers re-setting circuit breakers. “A breaker should never be re-set until you find out why it tripped,” says Neitzel. “When you close the breaker against a short circuit and hit it again, with that fault it can self-destruct. That is why ‘Joe the Office Worker’ is not supposed to do it. They may have seen the electrical worker do it, so they’ll go over there and try to re-set it themselves.”

Kolak points out that many circuit breakers are designed to only be reset a single time when it had been closed into a faulted circuit. “Repeatedly resetting circuit breakers without first finding and repairing the faulted circuit is one of the leading causes of arc-flash accidents,” he says. “Anyone who resets a circuit breaker into a faulted circuit should record and report what he’s done to qualified electrical workers and building engineers.”

Failure to provide or produce such documentation can also trip a company up during an OSHA investigation. In December 2010, the agency cited Next Step Burwell, a biofuel company in Nebraska, for lack of documentation, among other things, in an inspection prompted by the electrocution of a subcontracted employee asked to check a cable tray.

An arc you really don’t want to see

As most of you are well aware, arc flash and arc blast safety are areas of emphasis for OSHA and NFPA. In NFPA 70E, the NFPA not only lists steps to take to address and assess arc flash hazards, but also provides information on how to do an arc flash study, calculate incident energy in order to determine flash boundaries, and determine what level of PPE must be worn around hazardous system components. NFPA also offers a list of electrical safety consultants who can perform complete arc flash analyses in the workplace.

The dangers behind arc flash, Neitzel warns, are not to be underestimated. For starters, arc flashes can reach temperatures of 36,000°F in an instant. That means a one-tenth-of-a-second (six cycles) exposure to this level of heat renders human skin incurable, resulting in third-degree burns. To complicate matters, arc flash can produce an explosion of the air around the arc, which can ignite or vaporize metal, ignite wood and other flammable materials, and kill or severely injure anyone nearby. Walls can also be blown out by the blast or explosion that occurs with an arc flash; Neitzel says pressure differentials from a 100kA, 10kV arc flash could readily destroy a conventional wall at a distance of about 33 ft. An added danger is that arc flashes can ignite natural gas leaked from a ruptured line (e.g., after storm damage) or other hazardous materials close to the source of the explosion. They can also create very high noise levels that can damage hearing. (This information is derived from Ralph H. Lee’s papers titled, “The Other Electrical Hazard; Electric Arc Blast Burns,” IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications, Vol. 1A-18, No. 3, May/June 1982 and “Pressures Developed by Arcs,” IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications, Vol. 1A-23, No. 4, page 760, July/Aug. 1987.)

The keys to avoiding arc flash, Neitzel notes, are to identify the hazard-bearing components, analyze the hazard, and then observe and respect NFPA recommendations regarding flash boundaries and personal protective gear. One bright spot in terms of electrical worker safety, he contends, is that the NFPA, in particular, has done a good job of promoting the need for greater awareness about arc flash and arc blast.

“Not that many years ago, in a group of safety professionals, I would ask about NFPA 70E, and I would get maybe one or two hands raised,” he says. “Today, I would expect to see 80% or more of the people raise their hands.” Coming in 2012, Neitzel says information in NFPA 70E will focus on the dangers of DC arc flash as well.

Room for improvement

Of course one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce or eliminate electrical hazards in the workplace is to de-energize systems before working on them (see Creating an Electrically Safe Work Condition). Tom McCauley, a consultant with Solutions for Electrical Power Problems in suburban Chicago, says this concept sounds simple but isn’t always so.

“Companies complain that they can’t afford it,” McCauley says. “Or they say we’ve looked at our processes, and we don’t want to interrupt that.”

A good case in point was an OSHA inspection that resulted in citations and fines against The Hart-
ford Financial Services Group and its maintenance contractor, Grubb & Ellis, in early June. According to OSHA, The Hartford’s data center policy required electricians employed by Grubb & Ellis to perform work in live electrical panels for computer equipment without first de-energizing the panels, in violation of OSHA standards. Grubb & Ellis was cited and fined for its workers’ failure to de-energize the panels. In addition, OSHA said Grubb & Ellis employees were not properly trained on electrical safe work practices, and protective equipment needed to guard against electrical hazards. The company was also cited for not having specific hazardous energy control procedures to prevent the activation or release of hazardous energy, and for failing to train all authorized employees on hazardous energy controls and procedures for safely applying, using, and removing energy control devices.

Dr. Michael Morse, an electrical engineering professor at the University of San Diego, says electrical safety is, unfortunately, a lesson that can be lost — at times — by anyone.

“I see people trying to observe the wires under energized switchgear, using no PPE, and violating the proximity rules — all on the basic premise that ‘I have been doing this a long time, and I know what I’m doing,’” Morse says. “Then, when something unforeseen happens, it’s too late.”

Morse contends more could be done to increase awareness of the real dangers of electric shock. Recent studies, for example, have shown that people who have been exposed to electric shock suffer not only at the point at which the shock is experienced, but also debilitating after-effects later in life. This situation is similar to the way recent studies have found concussions to have lasting effects on the brains of athletes or those involved in physically punishing occupations. “I am always preaching that you should think of the next shock as being potentially fatal,” warns Morse, who wants to teach future electricians and electrical workers more about safety.

“One of the weakest points in engineering education is safety issues,” Morse continues. “My students do senior design projects. Every year, I will wander in and look at the projects, and I am amazed at the breaches of safety. They may have been assigned to wire a house for their senior project, yet there are wires exposed everywhere — and no recognition that they are in violation of the codes.”

The key to improvement, says Neitzel, is better training, education, and increased awareness for all employees, not just electrical workers. “There is not enough focus on safety training for non-electrical workers,” he says. “You show me the person who is not involved with cord- and plug-connected electrical equipment and extension cords. This is 120V equipment that is used every day by most non-electrical people. They need electrical safety training.”

Such training, Neitzel adds, does not have to be all about amps and volts either. “If there are signs and barricades up, teach people why they shouldn’t bypass them,” he says. “Too many times they don’t explain why, they just put them up. Electrical safety is for more than just electricians.”

Dukart is a freelance writer based in Eden Prairie, Minn. He can be reached at jdukart@thewriteplanet.com.

SIDEBAR: Severe Violator Program Ups Safety Stakes

According to OSHA, about 14 Americans fail to come home from work to their families every day. Tens of thousands die from workplace disease, and more than 4.6 million workers are seriously injured on the job annually. That’s one reason why the agency has implemented the new Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP), which took effect on June 18, 2010, and increases civil penalty amounts for violators.

“SVEP will help OSHA concentrate its efforts on those repeatedly recalcitrant employers who fail to meet their obligations under the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” says Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, who maintains that OSHA inspections and penalties must be large enough to discourage employers from cutting corners or underfunding safety programs to save a few dollars. “It will include a more intense examination of an employer’s practices for systemic problems that would trigger additional mandatory inspections.”

The current maximum penalty for a serious violation — one capable of causing death or serious physical harm — is only $7,000, and the maximum penalty for a willful violation is $70,000. The average penalty for a serious violation will increase from about $1,000 to an average $3,000 to $4,000. Monetary penalties for violations of the OSH Act have been increased only once in 40 years, despite inflation. The Protecting America’s Workers Act would raise these penalties for the first time since 1990 to $12,000 and $250,000, respectively. Future penalty increases would also be tied to inflation.

An overview of the criteria for a severe violator enforcement case, based on OSHA literature, is outlined below:

Any inspection that meets one or more of criteria (A) through (D) at the time the citations are issued will be considered a severe violator enforcement case.

  1. Fatality/Catastrophe Criterion. A fatality/catastrophe inspection in which OSHA finds one or more willful or repeated violations or failure-to-abate notices based on a serious violation related to a death of an employee or three or more hospitalizations.
  1. Non-Fatality/Catastrophe Criterion Related to High-Emphasis Hazards. An inspection in which OSHA finds two or more willful or repeated violations or failure-to-abate notices (or any combination of these violations/notices), based on high gravity serious violations related to a high-emphasis hazard.
  1. Non-Fatality/Catastrophe Criterion for Hazards Due to the Potential Release of a Highly Hazardous Chemical (Process Safety Management). An inspection in which OSHA finds three or more willful or repeated violations or failure-to-abate notices (or any combination of these violations/notices), based on high gravity serious violations related to hazards due to the potential release of a highly hazardous chemical, as defined in the PSM standard.
  1. Egregious Criterion. All egregious (e.g., per-instance citations) enforcement actions will be considered SVEP cases.

For more information on the penalty policy, visit http://www.osha.gov/dep/administrative-penalty.html.

SIDEBAR: Creating an Electrically Safe Work Condition

The primary focus of NFPA 70E is the establishment of an electrically safe work condition, meaning that equipment is fully de-energized and cannot be re-energized while work is being performed. The following steps should be followed to create an electrically safe work condition:

  1. Determine all possible sources of electrical energy to the equipment.
  2. Interrupt load current and open disconnecting devices for all sources.
  3. Where possible, visually confirm that disconnecting devices are open.
  4. Follow appropriate lockout/tagout procedures.
  5. Verify that equipment is de-energized using a voltmeter. Until equipment is tested, assume that it is still energized.
  6. Use grounding devices where the possibility of stored energy or induction exists.

Creating an electrically safe work condition is the first line of defense against arc flash and other electrical hazards. This procedure should be used in every situation, with the following exceptions:

  • When de-energizing equipment would create a greater hazard, such as when life-support equipment, ventilation equipment in a hazardous environment, or similar safety equipment would be de-energized.
  • When de-energizing is not possible due to equipment design, such as when the equipment is part of a larger continuously-operating system.
  • When the nature of the work to be performed requires that equipment be energized—for instance, when checking voltage.

Source: Arc Flash Information Resource Center


SIDEBAR: OSHA’s Top 10 Violations for 2010

  1. Scaffolding, General – 9,093 violations
  2. Fall Protection – 6,771 violations
  3. Hazard Communication – 6,378 violations
  4. Respiratory Protection – 3,803 violations
  5. Lockout/Tagout – 3,321 violations
  6. Electrical, Wiring – 3,079 violations
  7. Ladders – 3,072 violations
  8. Powered Industrial Trucks – 2,993 violations
  9. Electrical, General – 2,556 violations
  10. Machine Guarding – 2,364 violations

Source: OSHA, Oct. 5, 2010