Preventing Common Electrical Injuries on the Jobsite

Construction workers are the most at risk of death from electrical accidents. Employers can implement prevention strategies to reduce chances of electrical injuries and create a safer, more efficient jobsite.
By Kelsey Rzepecki
November 5, 2019

Despite the overall decrease in electrical workplace fatalities, construction workers remain the most at risk of death from electrical accidents. In 2016, 53% of all fatal electrical injuries were in the construction industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employers can improve their bottom line by implementing prevention strategies to reduce chances of electrical injuries and create a safer, more efficient jobsite.

What Are the Most Common Electrical Injuries in Construction?

The three types of electrical injuries that occur the most often on construction jobsites are:

  1. electrocution (such as electric shock and burns) through unintentional contact with high-voltage lines or equipment;
  2. severe burns or death from explosive gases accidentally ignited by electrical equipment; and
  3. injuries from falls or from contact with moving equipment after worker experiences a low-voltage electrical shock and can no longer keep balance or physical control of the tools or equipment they have when shocked.

The high pressure to meet deadlines can compromise safety where workers may take hazardous shortcuts, such as not de-energizing electrical circuits to avoid downtime in other areas. Electrocution is the most prevalent and is among the construction focus four. It’s because of this that OSHA created the acronym BE SAFE to help workers better recognize, avoid and protect against common electrical hazards.

"BE SAFE"—an easy reminder to improve day-to-day safety awareness

Note that each of these hazards are equally important:

B = Burns are the most common shock-related injury. There are three various types of burns from electricity: electrical, arc/flash or thermal contact.

E = Electrocution is the most fatal electrical hazard. Humans are exposed to a deadly amount of electrical energy.

S = Shock is a reflex response to the passage of electric current though the body. Shocks from defective grounding methods are common.

A = Arc flash/Blast is a sudden release of electrical energy in the air when there is a high-voltage gap and a breakdown between conductors. Temperatures have been recorded as high as 35,000 °F.

F = Fire. Problems with fixed wiring like faulty electrical outlets and old wiring cause most electrical distribution fires; problems with cords, plugs, receptacles and switches are also a large cause.

E = Explosions. Electricity ignites a mixture of explosive material in the air.

Electrical Safety Tips

Electrical safety issues are consistently on OSHA’s top 10 most cited violations list, specifically wiring methods, lockout/tagout and general electrical requirements.

Having multiple contractors working on construction sites increases the risk of accidents and deaths. Apply these key electrical safety reminders to reduce risk on the jobsite:

  • ensure all workers get adequate electrical safety training and that they understand electrical hazards on the jobsite;
  • inspect the jobsite to identify potential electrical and site-specific hazards before work begins;
  • ensure all workers understand and practice lockout/tagout procedures;
  • provide the personal protective equipment and make sure employees wear it (face shields, safety glasses and head protection are essential when working on energized electrical systems to protect from electrical shock and accidental head contact with electrical hazards); and
  • enlist a qualified electrician to work on energized electrical systems. Workers should never repair electrical cords unless qualified and authorized.

Overall, safe work practices, insulation, grounding, guarding and protective devices can reduce or eliminate risk of electrical accidents. For more details on regulations and requirements, refer to OSHA electrical construction regulations.

Implement Controls in High-risk Areas

There are certain areas on construction sites that have higher chances for electrical-related injuries to occur. Note the following high-risk areas and what to do to mitigate hazards:

  • Power Lines. Overhead and buried power lines carry high voltage and may not always be visible. To help prevent accidental contact, all workers should stay at least 10 feet away from overhead power lines. If voltage is more than 50,000, increase distance by four inches for each additional 10,000 volts. Provide workers with personal protective equipment like helmets and rubber insulating gloves and sleeves while working with or near power lines. OSHA suggests using non-conductive wood or fiberglass ladders versus metal. If metal objects come too close to an energized power line, it will act as a magnet and move toward the object. Contact with an energized line can result in serious shock injury or fatal electrocution.
  • Energized Sources. Construction workers are four times more likely to be electrocuted than workers in all other industries combined (Campbell and Dini 2016). In many accidents, workers at jobsites have touched metal objects that then become energized through contact with power lines or live electrical equipment. Alert workers to be mindful of exposed electrical wiring, energized equipment and unfinished electrical systems, which can all cause electrocution or electrical burns. Always de-energize high voltage lines if possible; if not, use barricades or other means to ensure workers stay at least 10 feet away from the energized lines at all times.
  • Extension and Flexible Cords. Protect all power cords from damage and secure them so they will not come in contact with liquids or be cut, pulled, yanked or tripped over while in use.
  • Small Spaces. Small work areas such as basement crawlspaces, attics and utility tunnels increase the risk of electrical accidents; to best prepare workers, conduct task-specific training. If there is a lot of work to be done in small spaces on the jobsite, make a worker task-specific pocket safety guide that covers every task they’re assigned for an easy reference.

Improve Recognition of Hazards with Signs and Visuals

Warning signs, markings and tags are essential to alert workers and electricians to the presence of electrical hazards. Identify all electrical energy sources and clearly mark them with warnings. Mark entrances to rooms and other guarded locations that contain exposed live parts with warning signs to prohibit unqualified workers from entering. Communicate lockout/tagout procedures and warnings on all low and high voltage fuse boxes and control panels.

Custom signs can address site-specific hazards and procedures. Utilize symbols and other visuals that will better resonate with workers and improve recognition of information.

Employers and workers must be diligent and have full buy-in with their company’s electrical safety program to successfully reduce electrical injuries on the jobsite.

by Kelsey Rzepecki
Kelsey Rzepecki writes for Graphic Products, makers of the DuraLabel line of industrial label and sign printers. 

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