While there are guidelines and requirements in place to help prevent electrical accidents, there is still a lot of room for error and
oversight during the course of a busy workday. According to OSHA data, there are 30,000 arcs and 7,000 burn injuries per year, and more than 2,000 people are admitted to the hospital with severe arc flash burns annually.

This is why, every three years, the NFPA updates its 70E: Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®. With the pending release of the 2018 edition of the standard, electrical professionals will need to adjust to several changes to the existing safety practices they already incorporate into their daily work routines. One of the most notable changes expected is the requirement of a job safety plan and risk assessment for every project.

Plan for Safety 
As part of the proposed expansion to existing Job Safety Planning and Job Briefings in the NFPA 70E 2018 edition, electrical workers will now be required to create a formal, documented job safety plan, which includes a mandatory risk assessment for both arc flash and shock before starting any job that involves electrical work or equipment. According to section 110.1(I)(1), job safety planning must include:
  • a description of the job and individual tasks;
  • identification of the electrical hazards associated with each task;
  • a shock risk assessment for tasks involving a shock hazard;
  • an arc flash risk assessment for tasks involving an arc flash hazard; and
  • work procedures involved, special precautions and energy source controls. 
The standard requires job safety planning to be conducted by a properly trained employee who understands the necessary work and is knowledgeable about the operation of equipment. Upon completion of the job safety plan, the employee in charge must conduct a job briefing with all employees who will be involved with that job before beginning any work.    

Mandated: Risk Assessment
Included in the 2015 edition of the standard, the risk assessment requirement will be expanded in 2018. The risk assessment helps workers identify hazards, assess risks and implement risk controls. In the context of electrical hazards, risk is comprised of two factors: the likelihood of occurrence and the potential severity of an injury. Likelihood of an occurrence depends on many factors, such as the task being performed, the condition of equipment and the potential for human error.

Severity of an injury also depends on multiple factors and conditions, which is why it’s critical to follow proper procedures and conduct an assessment in the first place. The NFPA 70E requires risk assessment for two types of hazards: shock and arc flash. For shock hazards, the severity of an injury is directly related to voltage. For arc flash hazards, severity is based on the available incident energy at that point in the electrical system. 

To quantify the incident energy, the employee or contractor conducting the assessment will either select required protective equipment from a table providing general guidance based on system parameters or by performing an incident energy study, which calculates the potential incident energy level at key locations in the system. The incident energy level is important, as it informs the choice of risk controls, including personal protective equipment (PPE).

But understanding what this number means and how to use it can be tricky, particularly when combined with the other component of risk: the likelihood of injury. The 2018 standard will include revised tables that help electrical workers determine the likelihood of occurrence, whether they evaluate incident energy by using the tables or through an incident energy analysis.

Controls for Risk Mitigation

This information is then used to mitigate the risk using the hierarchy of control methods found in Sec. 110.1 (H)(3). In order from most to least effective, the six controls are:
  1. Elimination: This method focuses on eliminating the hazard. True elimination of electrical hazards may not be possible in many cases, as electrical loads have to be served in some manner. 
  2. Substitution: With this method, less hazardous equipment, such as non-electrical or battery-operated tools, may be used.
  3. Engineering controls: This method involves the use of products or solutions intended to reduce hazards or mitigate risk, such as circuit breakers or current-limiting fuses.
  4. Awareness: Proper labeling, posted signs, barriers and alerts are required to warn workers of the danger and keep them out of harm’s way. Proper worker training also can help increase awareness of hazards and risk control methods.
  5. Administrative controls: To create safer work conditions, electrical professionals should focus on planning processes, training, permits, job planning and work procedures.
  6. PPE: Mistakenly considered the best defense against arc flash injury, PPE is actually the last line of defense, as it is only rated to mitigate an arc flash event to a survivable level. 
Successful arc flash safety programs incorporate safety by design, where mitigating techniques are employed to reduce risk. Though not as effective as substitution or elimination, engineering controls—which may involve proper equipment specifications, proper device selection and the modernizing of existing electrical equipment—are intended to reduce the degree of hazard or likelihood of occurrence. Considering safety as part of the design process and selecting the correct and proper equipment at the outset helps ensure the safest possible environment for a facility’s workers right from the start.

While they are an important part of the overall safety program, administrative controls and awareness are considered to be less effective because they rely on workers following proper procedures and safe work practices. At the bottom of the list is PPE. While required when an arc flash energy reduction system is employed, PPE cannot reduce the hazard and does not guarantee freedom from injury.

Beyond the Code: Maintenance and Modernization
While compliance to safety procedures is a must, ongoing equipment maintenance and upgrades when appropriate are important considerations for decreasing potential risk. With tightening budgets impacting many organizations today, facilities across industries are reliant on electrical infrastructure well past its prime, putting electrical systems at a higher risk for arc flash incidents due to failing materials, corrosion, dust and debris buildup, among other factors. This, in turn, puts electrical contractors working on outdated electrical equipment at increased risk of injury. Upgrading to modern equipment can address the inherent risk and compliance issues of older infrastructure while also reducing maintenance costs, increasing system reliability and providing enhanced safety capabilities.

Make Safety the Standard
Through a combination of required administrative processes, such as job briefings and job safety plans, and control methods such as risk assessment and mitigation, the NFPA 70E standard is intended to create a safer electrical workplace. Construction leaders and electrical contractors alike can prepare for these changes now by training employees to perform job safety planning, recognize hazards and apply control methods to mitigate risk. Only through the adoption of safe electrical practices can employers ensure the safety of electrical professionals on the job.

Antony C. Parsons is a senior staff engineer for Schneider Electric specializing in electrical power distribution systems. For more information, visit schneider-electric.com.