PPE You Can Plug Into
The value of ground fault circuit interrupters
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2011
When we talk about personal protective equipment, we typically picture arc-rated clothing, face shields, insulated gloves, and balaclavas. Insulated tools, non-conductive ladders, rubber insulating mats, and protective temporary grounding equipment also fit into the broader category of equipment designed to protect employees against electrical hazards.
The use of such equipment is determined through a shock hazard and/or arc flash hazard analysis. But how many workers conduct a shock hazard analysis before plugging in a portable electric tool or some other piece of equipment?
Unfortunately, the answer suggests that the awareness of the shock hazard for this type of work environment does not match that for a task such as working on an energized piece of electrical equipment. Many workers who will never be exposed to a shock hazard while working on energized electrical equipment will, in fact, be exposed to a shock hazard by using a faulty portable tool, appliance, cord, or other item in a wet, damp, or similarly conductive environment.
Although many tools and portable lamps used in today’s workplaces are battery-powered, providing the safety benefit of operating at voltages under 50 volts and not having to be connected through cords, there are still many tasks that can only be performed effectively using a 120-volt or higher cord- and plug-connected piece of equipment.
Faulty portable electric tools and extension cord sets injure or kill numerous workers every year. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) are electrical safety devices with a proven track record of mitigating the injurious or deadly effects of current conducted from a faulty tool or appliance to ground, using a person’s body as the current path. Since 1971, NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), has contained requirements covering the installation of GFCIs in the premises wiring systems of homes and other occupancy types. Included in these NEC requirements are the rules of Article 590, which cover the installation of GFCI protection for certain receptacle configurations that are used to supply temporary power.
With the removal of installation requirements from NFPA 70E in the 2009 revision cycle, the only mention of GFCIs in the 2009 edition is the provision for testing GFCI protection devices in Section 110.9(C). Safe work practice requirements on the use of GFCIs, similar to those found in the OSHA 1910 Subpart S and 1926 Subpart K standards, are not covered in the 2009 edition of NFPA 70E.
The 2012 edition has been revised to fill this gap. Section 110.4(C) requires employees to be provided with GFCI protection where it is required by “applicable state, federal, or local codes and standards.” This section recognizes the use of listed, portable GFCI devices in lieu of “permanent” devices installed as part of the premises wiring system. In addition, workers using cord- and plug-connected equipment supplied by a 120-volt, 15-, 20- or 30-ampere circuit in outdoor locations are to be protected through the use of a listed, portable GFCI device or through a connection to a GFCI receptacle that is part of the premises wiring system.
Equipment used outdoors and supplied by circuits with other voltage and current ratings must be protected by implementing an assured equipment grounding conductor program.
Not all premises wiring systems provide GFCI protection where a tool or cord is plugged in. If you don’t have a portable GFCI as part of your personnel protective equipment arsenal, consider getting one. It is an inexpensive and life-saving device you can easily plug into.
Jeffrey Sargent is NFPA's senior electrical specilist and is staff liason for NFPA 70E.