It can take as little as 50 milliamperes of electricity, a tiny fraction of one amp, to cause death. As they say, it isn't the voltage that kills you; it’s the amps.
According to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR), the rate of electrocution suffered in the construction industry remains unacceptably high. Construction workers represented 61% of all work-related electrocution fatalities. Construction laborers, as a group, suffered the largest portion of fatalities at 23%, actually exceeding that of electrical workers (19%).
While the rate of electrocutions fell between 1998 and 2010, from over 150 per year to around 80, the rate for construction workers remains the highest of all work-related electrocution fatalities in 2015.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that between 2011 and 2015:
Electrical contractors represented the highest rate of any sub-sector, with 115 electrocutions out of 364 for the entire sector.
Electricians suffered 105 electrocutions, the highest of any occupation.
Workers aged 35 to 44 had the highest occurrence of electrocution of any age group at 28.3%.
Workers less than 25 years old experienced the highest rate among full-time workers of electrocutions at 1.2 per 100,000.
The CPWR also reported that, between 2008 and 2010, contact with overhead power lines constituted the main cause of electrocution deaths. Approximately 40 deaths per year occurred during that period, amounting to a total of 119 deaths or almost half of overall electrocution deaths.
The question then becomes, “How do these electrocutions happen?”
Primary Causes of Electrocution in Construction
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that electric parts are the leading source of fatalities in the industry (52%). Of electric parts, 39% of electrocutions are caused by power lines, transformers, and converters.
The main cause of death among electrical workers is contact with live electrical equipment and wiring.
The main cause of death among non-electrical workers is contact with overhead power lines.
One-fifth of deaths due to contact with overhead power lines occurs through bodily contact with a line or lighting equipment.
The rest occur when an object handled by a worker contacts an electrical line.
Along with the lack of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), another major cause of electrocution comes from the improper use of extension and flexible power cords. Cords can age, become damaged through normal wear and tear, have loosened or exposed wiring, or be damaged by door and window edges, staples, and fasteners.
Fabricating extension cords using ROMEX wire is a common example of misuse of equipment that can cause electrocution. Water is an excellent conductor and, when introduced, increases the chances for electrocution.
OSHA and Electrical Safety
OSHA requires each jobsite to have a written description of the employer's Assured Equipment Grounding Conductor Program or AEGCP. The document must include an outline of the specific procedures to be followed for required equipment inspections and tests as well as a test schedule. All tests must be recorded, and the record kept until it is replaced with a more current record.
The AEGCP and the test records must be made available at the jobsite to any OSHA representative and any affected employee upon request.
Reducing Electrocution Risk
There are several methods of significantly reducing electrical dangers on a jobsite. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) — insulating gloves, non-conductive clothing, matting, blankets, and line hose.
Engineering controls — GFCIs, surge protection devices, de-energizing or visibly grounding power lines.
Safety measures — regular tool inspections and maintenance, lock-out/tag-out procedures, and visibly flagging power lines above and below ground.
Other precautions — use non-conductive equipment, don’t store materials beneath overhead power lines, and use an observer when operating overhead equipment.
Training all workers in electrical safety on a regular basis will maintain awareness on the jobsite.
Fatal electrocutions can be avoided with the appropriate procedures and precautions, such as lock-out and tag-out procedures and using non-conductive equipment. Developing an assured equipment grounding conductor program and ensuring PPE, engineering controls, and other safety measures can reduce the chances of electrocution occurring at your jobsite.
Let’s aim for zero.