Electrical safety on construction sites is a topic that is being talked about more and more these days. So when I was asked to write about it, the safety nerd in me immediately started rattling off OSHA 1926 standards and quoting NFPA 70E requirements in my head. Then I remembered back to the days when I was probably more at home in a building under construction than I was in my own living room. Getting all nostalgic reminded me to put my safety nerd back in the cage for a second and return to this world where I now help keep my brothers and sisters on job sites safe from electrical hazards.
For anyone who has spent the better part of the last 30 years on or around a construction site, it probably comes as no surprise when I say that enforcement of safety rules has become a priority on many of these sites around the world. For instance, the mindset has shifted from wearing hard hats only when exposed to an overhead hazard of falling objects to the mentality of now putting it on the second we step out of our vehicles. Safety glasses and dust masks soon followed. Driving all of this was the organization that was created to improve safety for the worker, OSHA. It didn’t take long for the larger general contractors to make safety a way of life on their sites, which was great for the crews working on the big projects, but what about the smaller ones? How do we address safety on these sites?
As is human nature, when a worker has been operating the same way for the last 20 years, it is highly unlikely that their behavior will change without some level of external motivation. For me, there was no shortage of job superintendents and foremen on site to remind me of my mistakes and eventually it became second nature.
Safety and PPE on construction sites act no differently than for example, wearing seatbelts in a car. Yet, there are still people who have are not motivated enough to seek safety as a culture on their own. Recently, I attended a virtual conference where electrical safety was the overall theme and one thing that kept popping up was a rules-based approach versus a skills-based approach to safety. It quickly became apparent to me that what we have here is a rules-based approach. In other words, we teach people how to do the job and then once they know the job, we throw a book of rules at them and say, “Here, follow these!” The challenge begins when the individual has potentially already picked up some bad habits. Without a force looking over his/her shoulder to ensure they follow the rules, they are likely to continue the same bad behavior. A friend recently said to me, “We can write all the requirements for safety that we want, and they can be the best safety practices for any given task, but if the worker doesn’t follow them, well, then we failed in our attempt to protect the worker.”
Just about everything you and I do at this very moment in time was learned by someone showing us how to do it. With a skills-based approach, the worker only learns how to do the task with all the safety requirements in place. In other words, this approach creates a work force where the safe work practices are how they learn to become a carpenter, plumber, or electrician in the first place. In areas where this approach has been the norm, the statistics show much fewer injuries and fatalities. For example, at that same electrical safety conference, discussions revolved around multiple presentations that showed how the UK has a significantly lower number of occupational fatalities from electricity.
The good news is that the winds of change are upon us here in the US. Many schools are beginning to teach safety as a skill from day one now, and we are starting to see the impact in the workforce. To see these results though we need to focus on the growing gap in injuries between the various age demographics. A quick search of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data tables shows that workers between the age of 20-24 accounted for 409 electrical injuries while the 45-54 age demographic accounted for 343 injuries back in 1999. 20 years later in 2019, these numbers have shifted to 300 and 610 injuries respectively for the same age groups. In both tables, the percentage of the workforce that each age group makes up remained about the same. Therefore, we can see that the gradual integration of electrical safety into worker training on the front end is having an impact and making the next generation of workers better equipped to avoid being injured on the job.
However, simply because we can see a trend in the numbers that suggests things are working, does not in any way imply that we can back off the intensity with which we promote electrical safety. In fact, as the BLS data for 2019 illustrates, there are still 1,900 injuries resulting from exposure to electricity and that is too many. Things might be getting better, but we still have a very long way to go. We can and will get better but only if we approach workplace safety from all sides including requirements, education, and enforcement.
Through this type of approach, our construction sites will naturally grow to be a safer work environment for all involved. Workers will be better equipped to recognize hazards and avoid the associated risks. Not only will this reduce the liability that many contractors face, but it will also improve productivity and help contractors avoid costly down time. A job site with fewer injuries that finishes on or ahead of schedule and with no money paid out due to injuries or worse, is a job site we can all be proud of.
If you want to learn more about how data is informing safety practices and other related topics, you won’t want to miss NFPA’s upcoming 125th Conference series. This one-of-a-kind educational series features 10 one-day programs for building, electrical, and life safety professionals and practitioners and focuses on the topics you care most about. Engage in informative education sessions, get innovative content, and participate in industry roundtable discussions, networking opportunities, live chat sessions, exhibitor demonstrations, and more. It kicks off on May 18 with a one-day Electrical Program aimed at issues related to design and installation, new and emerging technology, and workplace safety in the electrical landscape.
Sign up to get updates on the electrical program by visiting nfpa.org/conference. We look forward to seeing you there! Remember, it’s a big world, let’s protect it together!