Avoid employee injury and OSHA fines by developing a climate that values electrical workplace safety.

An arc flash electrical accident occurs when a worker makes accidental contact with an energized electrical conductor-this accident happens about five to 10 times per day in the United States. These accidents often result in very serious and permanently disabling injuries and, in many cases, death. (On average, one fatality occurs each day from arc flash accidents.) Though these accidents have occurred for many years, people who work on electrical equipment have not fully understood this hazard until recently.

The construction industry is one of many industries required to comply with electrical workplace safety requirements. This is true even if a company does not have employees who work directly on electrical power and control systems and are regularly exposed to electrical hazards. For example, general contractors often employ electrical contractors as subcontractors for work. In cases such as these, the general contractor will have some workplace safety responsibility for the hired subcontractors, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 70E 2009 article 110.5, which describes host employer and contract employer responsibilities.

Dire Consequences

The personal consequences of these accidents are devastating and life altering for workers and their families. The average financial cost of a serious but survived accident is $8 to $10 million for the employer and its liability insurer-in both direct and indirect costs. Litigation that inevitably follows these incidents can be very costly and damaging to all contractual parties, and citations and fines by OSHA are common if the employer has not complied with published safety requirements.

Because NFPA 70E is called a "consensus standard," it cannot be enforced. But OSHA recognizes the NFPA 70E requirements as a best practice standard for electrical safety. OSHA also regularly enforces workplace electrical safety and has recently become more aggressive about enforcing workplace electrical safety, as well as workplace safety in general. OSHA cites its own requirements for electrical safety in 29CFR 1910.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis states: "Let me be clear: the Department of Labor is back in the enforcement business." The OSHA budget has been expanded to allow for more enforcement and additional compliance officers.

Employer Responsibilities

Construction businesses that hire subcontractors for electrical work have responsibilities as the host employer to ensure a safe workplace. Because of liability exposure, the host contractor must ensure the subcontracted employer is aware of electrical safety standards and has adequately trained employees. Failure to properly qualify subcontractors can have serious consequences if an electrical accident happens.

Employers must provide the following to comply with NFPA 70E and OSHA workplace electrical safety standards:

  • A written electrical safety programAn arc flash hazard analysis
  • Training for workers (Specific training on the hazards is required in order for electrical workers to be considered "qualified" by OSHA.)
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE clothing) for workers rated specifically to protect workers from arc flash and shock hazards
  • Tools for safe work-insulated, voltage-rated hand tools and instruments for electrical measurements
  • Warning labels on equipment that include either the calculated hazard/risk category or the incident energy in calories per square centimeter for each piece of electrical equipment in the electrical system 

The Benefits of Adhering to Construction Safety Best Practices

In any company, the senior management team must lead the effort to develop a safety culture. Without strong leadership, implementing cultural changes will be very difficult, if not impossible. Investing in safety is not only good business practice, but it will also return dividends. The tangible payoff comes in the form of reduced medical incident rates and reduced workers' compensation costs.

Adhering to standards and best practices can also increase worker confidence-something not as easily measured. Maintaining a safe work environment and providing the tools, training and programs to reduce the chances of injury shows the company cares about its workforce. That's a reputation for which any company would pay dearly


Electrical Workplace Safety: Are You Up-to-Date?

  • An arc flash hazard analysis shall not be required where all of the following conditions exist:
  • The circuit is rated 240 volts or less
  • The circuit is supplied by one transformer
  • The transformer supplying the circuit is rated less than 125 kVA
  • Improper or inadequate maintenance can result in increased opening time of the over-current protective device, thus increasing the incident energy.
  • Equipment shall be field marked with a label containing the available incident energy or required level of PPE.
  • Proper maintenance of over-current protective devices is required in order to successfully predict the degree of hazardous energy to which a worker may be exposed under arc flash conditions.
  • Protective devices shall be maintained to adequately withstand or interrupt available fault current.

Construction Business Owner, November 2010