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A Better Understanding of NFPA 70E: Setting Up an Electrical Safety Program (Part 5 – Risk Assessments)

NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace® Section 110.5(H) requires that a risk assessment procedure be developed as part of an electrical safety program (ESP). NFPA 70E is not a how-to manual for detailing a risk assessment procedure. It is also not appropriate for training an employee how to conduct the assessment. There are hundreds of valid methods of performing risk assessments for the thousands of tasks that could be conducted on the millions of pieces of equipment available. Section 110.5(H) requires a minimum of three things to be addressed and documented before any employee begins a task. The risk assessment procedure must detail the process that will be used to:

  • identify hazards
  • assess risks
  • implement the hierarchy of risk controls

Consistency is important when conducting risk assessments. Without it an employee conducting an assessment may tolerate a risk level that is not acceptable, ignore hazards that have been previously recognized, or improperly apply the hierarchy of risk controls. Training an employee to follow NFPA 70E Section 110.5(H) rather than your documented procedure will introduce such unsafe practices.

Identify Hazards – NFPA 70E defines an electrical hazard as a dangerous condition such that contact or equipment failure can result in electric shock, arc flash burn, thermal burn, or arc blast injury. The two hazards (shock and arc-flash) currently covered by NFPA 70E are easily recognizable. The potential for an electrical shock typically at starts at 50 volts. An arc-flash burn begins at 1.2 cal/cm2. Contact burns can occur at temperatures as low as 44°C (110°F) if the contact is prolonged and as quick as a second above 80°C (186°F).  There currently is no consensus on what an arc-blast hazard is. NFPA 70E does not specify where any of these hazards exist. It is the role of the ESP to cover how equipment is evaluated to determine if these hazards are present during any task performed on equipment.

Assess Risks - Human factors are generally recognized as being among the leading causes of injury and the potential for human error must be addressed in a risk assessment. This takes knowledge not only of the assigned task but also the location of the task, the equipment to be worked on, the tools to be used, competency of the employee assigned, and other issues. Working above a piece of equipment provides an opportunity for items to be dropped into ventilation openings or for an employee to choose to stand on the lower equipment rather than use an appropriate platform. Maybe an employee could confuse a Category I meter for a Category III meter because of a similar design. The risk assessment procedure should address what is to be considered a potential human error when conducting the specific task on the equipment in its installed location.

Implement the Hierarchy of Risk Controls - The hierarchy of risk controls must also be addressed. It is beneficial to include a requirement for a risk assessment prior to purchasing or installing equipment to achieve the maximum benefit of the hierarchy. For installed equipment, requiring the assessment to retroactively apply the hierarchy to mitigate risks before the same task is performed again can increase workplace safety. The risk assessment procedure must require that elimination be the first control considered when planning a task. It must address why elimination was not used or required before applying other controls including personal protective equipment (PPE).

Not having a documented procedure for conducting risk assessments is dangerous. Acceptable and unacceptable risks will vary. Electrical hazards will not be properly addressed. The use of PPE as the sole means of protecting employees will become commonplace. Inconsistency in risk assessments could put an employee at a higher risk of injury when conducting the same task on different equipment. Make sure a documented risk assessment procedure is part of your ESP and is used for every risk assessment.

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Christopher Coache
Senior Electrical Engineer

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