A Better Understanding of NFPA 70E: Comparing Electrical Fatalities in Specific Occupations

Each year I have given a summary of fatalities linked to the electrical industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has not yet published the fatality numbers for 2020. My blogs have occasional pointed out that electrical fatalities do not just happen to those in electrical occupations. I decided to look at fatalities specifically due to exposure to electricity in various occupations.  The average electrical exposure fatalities (2011-2019) in construction and extraction occupations (75 fatalities), Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations (34 fatalities) and building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations (20 fatalities) account for a majority (79%) of the 153 annual electrical exposure fatalities. However, these occupations have people working in many sub-occupations. Who are the people dying from exposure to electricity while they are at work? The following chart shows the average electrical exposure fatalities for a specific occupation from 2011 through 2019.

Annual fatalities due to exposure to electricity chart 

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Those who read NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, often get hung up on the phrase working on electrical equipment as a reason not address electrical safety in their workplace. Six of these nine occupations do not work on electrical equipment. They typically interact with it and often are not actively interacting with electrical equipment when they become a fatality. Five of these are on the OSHA list of occupational categories of employees facing a higher-than-normal risk of electrical accident.

Many people say that, from these nine occupations, only the electrician is required to follow NFPA 70E. Follow that logic. Electricians are the vanguards of electrical safety. Why, then, are electricians being killed by the very thing they are the most knowledgeable about? Statistically electricians are possibly exposed to potential electrical hazards more often than most occupations. However, they are also supposed to know how to prevent their death while performing their work. Based on the starting assumption, they are the only ones who have been trained to recognize electrical hazards, and in the steps necessary to avoid being killed by those hazards. Yet, electricians consistently account for nearly 22% of all electrical exposure fatalities and 37% of electrical exposure fatalities in construction occupations. Another way to look at this is that an average of about 80 electricians die every year at work and about 25 of those deaths come from exposure to electricity. Supervisors at construction sites are often responsible for the day-to-day on-site safety and enforcement. However, eight supervisors per year are electrocuted while at construction sites. These are not good track records for the leaders in electrical safety.

A concerning occupation is the grounds worker. It is difficult to fathom electrical fatalities in the occupation with the use of gas and battery powered equipment. Are they hitting electrical wiring not properly protected by the installation, are they using extension cords that are damaged, or are they exposed to outdoor electrical equipment that is not properly maintained? Fifteen deaths a year due to electricity is too many for this occupation. Around 30 people a year are killed by direct contact with an overhead powerline, but I was unable to find specific occupations listed in the BLS data base. However, tree trimmers, roofers and painters are common occupations associated with this type of fatality often due to the use of a ladder, pole extension or boom. In my experience, many HVAC technicians have not taken up the belief that electrical safety applies to them which may account for their fatalities. I expect that the electrical deaths to production workers is heavily tied to lack of proper equipment maintenance. NFPA 70E is written to provide protection for these unqualified workers when exposed to electrical hazards while working. All employers must implement an  electrical safety program before these fatalities are a thing of the past.

NFPA 70E is concerned with electrical safety in the workplace for all workers. Regardless of your occupation there is the potential for a fatality due to exposure to electrical hazards. Electricians as well as painters must understand this and not only learn but apply the safety protocols that NFPA 70E outlines.

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Christopher Coache
Senior Electrical Engineer

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