A Better Understanding of NFPA 70E: Electrical Contact Fatalities

With the number of electrical contact fatalities in the workplace being relatively flat since 2012 (average 146 fatalities with a range of 134 to 156), I decided to look into what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) database provides for the electrical parts contributing to these fatalities. Perhaps if more of us have knowledge of who and what are involved in electrocutions we can further reduce the number of fatalities. 

The 1980-1992 data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) National Traumatic Occupational Fatalities Report (May 1998) shows a high of 582 electrical contact fatalities in 1981. An average of 411 fatalities occurred over those dozen years with the construction industry accounting for a majority of the fatalities. The most frequent victims were linesmen, laborers, electricians and painters. Thirty-three percent of the electrocutions occurred at less than 600 volts. Of these low-voltage electrocutions, 54% occurred at household voltage levels (120-240 volts). Fatalities at all voltages were caused by: direct worker contact with an energized powerline (28%); direct worker contact with energized equipment (21%); boomed vehicle contact with an energized powerline (18%); improperly installed or damaged equipment (17%); conductive equipment contact with an energized powerline (16%). Over 60% of the electrical contact fatalities occurred by contact with overhead power lines.

The BLS database shows an annual average of 269 electrical contact fatalities between 1992-2010 with a high of 348 in 1994. Although listed differently, the construction industry still suffered the most fatalities over this period. The three leading causes of electrical contact fatalities were: contact with overhead power lines (43%), contact with wiring, transformers, or other electrical components (16%) and contact with electric current of machine, tool, appliance, or light fixture (10%). 

The BLS lists an annual average of 152 fatalities between 2011-2017 with a high of 174 fatalities in 2011. Once more the construction industry suffered the most fatalities. Recording of the fatalities and the equipment involved changed in 2011. Now power lines, transformers, and convertors are included in one category which accounted for 59% of the fatalities, followed by building electrical wiring (15%) and power cords, electrical cords, extension cords (10%) and switchboards, switches, fuses (8%). 

An encouraging note from this data is that there has been an annual decrease of 76% in electrical contact fatalities since 1982. Which not surprisingly began to decrease after the issuance and increased use of the first edition (1979)  NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®®. A discouraging statistic is that nearly 60% of the annual fatalities over 40 years have consistently been through contact with overhead wires. I looked through available NIOSH case studies to find out who the victims were. Electricians, linesmen, painters, grounds keepers, roofers, and tree trimmers are common victims. A majority of their fatalities involved the use of a ladder. Other victims include well drillers, dump and cement truck drivers, and boom truck operators. Most of these involved parking near or beneath overhead power lines then raising a portion of the truck. It is disturbing that awareness of the work area could be a simple way to cut electrocutions in the workplace nearly in half.

Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace as its title suggests, is for all employees who might be exposed to electrical hazards while performing their assigned tasks. However, many employers and employees tend to believe that it is written only for those in the electrical industry. This may be one reason for so many overhead power line fatalities occurring even though NFPA 70E has requirements specifically covering this scenario. Fatalities are occurring in trades that may be mistaken in the belief that an electrical safety program does not apply to them. It is foreseeable that employees from these other trades will be exposed to electrical hazards. A field, yard, roadway or rooftop is their work environment. Federal law mandates that an employer furnish to each of his employees' employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees. If you are not in an “electrical trade” what does your employer do to ensure your electrical safety at your workplace?

For more information on 70E, read my entire 70E blog series on Xchange

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Next time: Where are the employees who are exposed to electrical hazards?

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Christopher Coache
Senior Electrical Engineer

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