I often ask non-electrical people what they know about electricity or electrical safety, and the answers typically go something like this:

  • “I don’t know anything about it.”
  • “My dad was an electrician, and he told me that electricity can kill you.”
  • “I know that if you touch it, it can hurt you.”
  • “I know better than to mess with it, so I call an electrician.”

As a general rule, non-electrical types don’t know very much about electricity or the hazards it presents. But when it comes to electricity, “what you don’t know, won’t hurt you” or “ignorance is bliss” simply don’t apply.

The problem with electricity is that it cannot be tasted, seen, heard, or smelled. Because it’s essentially invisible, it’s often referred to as a “silent killer” — far too many have found this lesson out the hard way.

We all know electricity is essential to our everyday life, both at home and on the job. Perhaps because it has become such a familiar part of our daily life that many of us don’t give much thought to how much our work and other activities depend on a reliable source of electricity. More importantly, we tend to overlook, ignore, or just don’t understand the hazards electricity poses. Therefore, we fail to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Statistics show that there are several hundred electrocutions each year, with more than half of those involving non-electrical people, most, if not all, of which could have been prevented through proper training and adherence to safe work practices. Furthermore, electricity is not picky. It will injure or kill a custodian, laborer, office worker, manager, or company president just as quickly as it will strike an electrician. The laws of physics for electricity are the same and apply to everyone; they do not change. Therefore, we must consider training for each of these job categories.

Some employees work with electricity directly as part of their everyday jobs while others work with it indirectly, primarily by the use of 120V cord- and plug-connected equipment, extension cords, and hand-held power tools. More shock injuries and electrocutions occur at 120V than any other voltage. This is due to the fact that it is a common voltage found in residential, recreational, agricultural, commercial, and industrial facilities. It is so common, in fact, that most people take it for granted and don’t recognize the potential hazards.

Most people use cord- and plug-connected equipment and/or extension cords in the performance of their work assignments every day. However, most of these same people are not aware of the OSHA 29 CFR 1910.334, 1910.304(g) and NFPA 70E-2015 Section 110.4(B) requirements for handling, inspection, and using cord- and plug-connected equipment and extension cords. The requirements are as follows:

  • Portable equipment shall be handled and stored in a manner that will not cause damage.
  • Flexible electric cords connected to equipment shall not be used for raising or lowering the equipment.
  • Flexible cords shall not be fastened with staples or hung in such a fashion as could damage the outer jacket or insulation.
  • Flexible cords shall not be used:

- As a substitute for permanent wiring of a building

- Where run through holes in walls, ceilings, or floors

- Where run through doorways, windows, or similar openings

- Where attached to building surfaces

- Where concealed behind building walls, ceilings, or floors

  • Portable cord- and plug-connected equipment and flexible cord sets (extension cords) shall be visually inspected before use on any shift for external defects (such as loose parts, deformed and missing pins, or damage to outer jacket or insulation) and for evidence of possible internal damage (such as pinched or crushed outer jacket).
  • Portable electric equipment and flexible cords used in highly conductive work locations (such as those inundated with water or other conductive liquids), or in job locations where employees are likely to contact water or conductive liquids, shall be approved for those locations.

There are also specific requirements to use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) when using extension cords for temporary power. The following requirements apply to temporary wiring installations that are used during maintenance, remodeling, or repair of buildings, structures, or equipment, or during similar construction-like activities.

  • All 125V, single-phase, 15A, 20A, and 30A receptacle outlets that are not part of the permanent wiring of the building or structure and that are in use by personnel shall have ground fault circuit interrupter protection for personnel.
  • A cord connector on an extension cord set is considered to be a receptacle outlet if the cord set is used for temporary electric power.
  • Cord sets and devices incorporating the required ground fault circuit interrupter that are connected to the receptacle closest to the source of power are acceptable forms of protection.

Another area that is generally overlooked is electrical safety training — and it’s not just for electricians or electrical technicians. OSHA and NFPA 70E states that “employees who are not qualified persons shall be trained in and familiar with any electrically related safety practices which are necessary for their safety.” This training would include the information discussed above.