Did you know that electricity exposure or contact is one of the leading causes of occupational injuries in the U.S.? According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, between 2011 and 2021, OSHA reported over 1,200 workplace fatalities involving electricity. Some of the most at-risk workers for electrical injuries and fatalities are engineers, linemen, electricians and construction workers. Still, even those who work with electricity indirectly, like roofers and carpenters, may be exposed to serious electrical hazards.
With this being a prominent safety issue across various labor trades, it is crucial for both employers and workers to take steps to spread awareness of electricity-related risks and prevent injuries on job sites.
Electrocution occurs when a person is exposed to a lethal amount of electricity. Electrical hazards can result in Burns, Electrocution, Shock, Arc flash/blast, Fire and Explosions (often referenced by the acronym BE SAFE).
A burn is an injury to the skin or deeper organic tissue. Burns can range in severity from first-degree to fourth-degree burns. Electrical burns are often more challenging to diagnose than other burns caused by heat, radiation, friction, chemicals or fire because they may cause significant injury beneath the skin without showing signs of damage on the surface.
Electrocution is a fatal injury caused by exposure to electricity. Electrocution is often caused by exposure to wires and contact with power lines or electrical arc flash.
Electrical shock is an injury to the body due to contact with a high-voltage source. The severity of shock-related injuries may range from an uncomfortable but mild jolt to causing severe, sometimes debilitating, harm.
Arc flash occurs when there is a sudden release of electrical energy through the air when a high-voltage gap exists, and there is a breakdown between conductors. Arc flashes release thermal radiation (heat) and bright, intense light that can cause burns. Injuries caused by arc flashes may vary in severity depending on the worker's proximity to the hazard, temperature and time for the circuit to break.
Electrical distribution fires may usually occur due to problems with "fixed wiring," such as old, damaged wiring or faulty outlets. Issues with cords, receptacles and switches can also cause electrical fires.
An electrical explosion may occur when it ignites an explosive mixture of materials in the air.
Electrical Safety Tips for Employers, Workers
Electricity is widely recognized as a serious workplace hazard, and related accidents can result in serious injuries. Under OSHA law, employers must provide workers with a reasonably safe work environment. For this reason, employers should set the standard of safety on job sites by implementing strategies to reduce electricity-related risks and prevent accidents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of the most dangerous electrical hazards on job sites include the following:
- Inadequate wiring
- Exposed electrical parts
- Overhead powerlines
- Defective insulation
- Overloaded circuits
- Wet conditions
- Damaged tools and equipment
- Improper PPE
Employers should advise workers to first look for clues if they believe an electrical hazard is present. For example, tripped circuit breakers or blown fuses may suggest too much current running through a circuit. Evaluate the "clue" and then decide what course of action to take to control the risks the hazards present.
If there is a "clue" that an electrical hazard is present, controlling contact with the electrical voltages and currents is important. The CDC recommends these strategies to help control electrical hazards and create a safe work environment:
- Lock out and tag out circuits and machines
- Use the right size and type of wire to prevent overloading
- Isolate live electrical parts to prevent exposure
- Use insulation to prevent exposure to live wires and parts
- Ground electrical systems and tools to prevent shocking currents
- Use GFCIs to prevent shocking currents
- Use overcurrent protection devices to prevent overloading circuits with too much current
Implement Safe Work Practices
It's important always to practice safe work tactics when working with electricity. This includes planning work and safety in advance, wearing proper PPE, using and maintaining the right tools for the job, avoiding overhead powerlines, using proper wiring and connectors and avoiding wet working conditions and other hazards.
Steps to Take Following an Electricity-Related Accident
Should a worker suffer an electric shock or burn on the job, it is critical that management and fellow workers follow emergency protocol to help the injured worker and prevent other injuries from occurring.
First, shut off the electrical current if the worker is still in contact with the energized circuit. While doing so, have one of the other people on the job site call 911 immediately. If the switchgear is not readily in reach, consider moving them away from the current with an object that does not conduct electricity, like dry wood. Never touch the injured worker directly if they are still in contact with the electrical current, as the electricity can pass from one person to another, causing multiple people to suffer injuries. If possible, try not to leave the injured worker and stay with them until the emergency medical technicians arrive.
Next, if it is determined that the worker is no longer in contact with the electrical current, call out to them to see if they are awake. If the worker is conscious, tell them not to move. Initially, an injured worker may be in shock and unaware of how serious their injuries are. Check for signs of bleeding on the worker. For wounds that have a lot of bleeding, put a cloth over the area and apply pressure. If the wound is on the arm or leg and is excessively bleeding, elevate the injured limb while keeping pressure on the wound.
If the worker is not conscious, check if they are breathing, taking care to move them as little as possible. If they are not breathing, have someone that is CPR-trained start artificial breathing and then check for a pulse. Continue CPR until the worker begins breathing or emergency services arrive.
Following a workplace accident, a worker may be able to recover benefits for medical bills and reimbursement for a portion of lost wages by filing a workers’ compensation claim. If the worker is injured as a result of a third party’s negligence, outside of an employer or co-worker, the injured worker may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent party to recover financial losses, disability coverage, medical expenses and pain and suffering damages. Should a worker wish to pursue a personal injury claim, they may benefit from seeking the legal advice of a lawyer.
Unfortunately, accidents on the job involving electricity are common and can result in serious, life-altering injuries, so it’s important to take steps to mitigate these risks. While employers and managers should set the standard of safety on job sites, both management and workers can work together to implement safety tactics on the job and follow proper procedures following a workplace accident.