A Better Understanding of NFPA 70E: Part I – Comparing Four Decades of Electrical Injuries and Fatalities
To assist all employers in reducing, if not eliminating, workplace electrical injuries and fatalities, I decided to investigate how far electrical safety has progressed over the last 40 years. Information from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) database has been used for 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010 and 2020. This will be a multipart blog series investigating different aspects of electrical injuries and fatalities.
There were 7,405 fatal injuries in the workplace in 1980, and 4,764 in 2020 (a Covid year with significantly fewer fatalities than the previous years). For comparison, excluding 2020, there has been an average of 5,222 fatalities since 2015. It is encouraging that progress has been made in all causes of workplace fatalities, but how is protecting employees from electrical hazards working out?
Electrocution was the fifth-leading cause of death in the workplace by the end of the 1970s; there were approximately 600 electrocutions annually at the time, accounting for about 8% of all workplace fatalities. The first edition of NFPA 70E®, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, was issued in 1979 to address those fatalities. What has happened since? Drum roll please … Exposure to electricity is no longer a stand-alone leading cause of workplace fatalities. It is included in a group of exposures to harmful substances or environments that together are currently the sixth-leading cause of fatalities—a vast improvement since NFPA 70E began addressing electrical safety.
RELATED: The 2024 edition of NFPA 70E is due out soon. Learn more.
It is amazing that in the 1970s exposure to electricity alone caused nearly as many deaths (about 600) as this entire exposure group now does (672 in 2020). Unfortunately, of the named harmful substances or environments, exposure to electricity is the leading cause of fatalities by a factor of 2 and accounts for one-fifth of all these 2020 exposure fatalities. In addition, exposure to electricity is once again on OSHA’s “Fatal Four” for the construction industry. The chart below shows the decrease in exposure to electricity fatalities and injuries (no 1980 online data for injuries) at the end of each decade. Great strides have been made, but there are still some areas where electrical safety can improve.
Exposure to electricity fatalities were nearly halved from 582 to 310 in the decade after NFPA 70E was first issued. It took two more decades to halve the fatalities from 310 to 164. Although there were 126 fatalities in 2020, exposure to electricity fatalities has stagnated at around 150 over the last decade. As a percentage of all workplace fatalities, exposure to electricity fatalities has decreased from 8% in 1980 to 3% in 2020. Electrical injuries requiring time away from work have nearly been cut in half (4,806 to 2,380) since 1990. These are good signs that employers have embraced protecting all employees in all workplaces from electrical hazards. The bad news is that, in 2020, 2,380 employees just missed becoming a fatality by dumb luck.
Vast improvements in electrical safety have been made in all occupations, but any fatality or injury is cause for further refinement. No employer should be satisfied with an employee electrical injury. Workplace fatalities due to exposure to electricity are preventable. It may seem difficult to further reduce the number of fatalities, but it is easier than it seems.
There are four things that an employer can do. First, properly install and maintain equipment so that not only your employees but also groundskeepers, contract workers, painters, and plumbers are protected from electrical hazards whenever they are near or interacting with your electrical equipment. Second, train your employees to recognize and avoid electrical hazards wherever their work environment may be. Third, create or improve your electrical safety program and follow it. The last thing only takes a second because it is simply a matter of flipping a switch to save someone’s life before they might be exposed to an electrical hazard.
The use of the most up-to-date edition of NFPA 70E is a key component to establishing electrical safety in the workplace. The 2024 edition of the standard is due out next month. The digital version of the new edition will also be added to NFPA LiNK® next week; visit nfpa.org/LiNK to learn more.